South Korea

Itinerary: Gyeongju – Daegu – Haeinsa – Seoul – DMZ

From Japan to South Korea

After spending almost three weeks in Japan, I am staying in the region for another week. A week that I will spend in South Korea. South Korea is officially called the Republic of Korea, but the Koreans themselves call their country Hanguk. I will stick to South Korea.

In less than an hour I fly from Fukuoka International Airport to Busan, on the other side of the Korea Strait that seperates Japan from South Korea. Customs and collecting my luggage only take a few minutes. I ordered a KoRail Pass for my week in South Korea, but it turns out I can’t exchange it at the airport. For that I have to go to the train station in Busan. This goes by bus, which takes half an hour to get to the center of the city. Busan is a large, busy city with many high-rise buildings and is sometimes referred to as ‘little Seoul’. After I exchange my voucher, I immediately arrange my seat reservations for the KTX high-speed lines (in Japan seat reservations were not necessary, but in South Korea it is recommended).


The KTX takes me in half an hour to Singyeongju, which is about ten kilometers west of my destination today: Gyeongju. The last part goes by bus again. Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla Kingdom for nearly 1,000 years. Around the beginning of our era there were three kingdoms on the Korean peninsula: Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. The three kingdoms regularly clashed, until by defeating the other two in 668, Silla became the first dynasty to unite the peninsula.


Silla was strongly oriented towards China and because of these relations Korea was influenced in many areas. For example, the Koreans introduced Buddhism and Confucianism to the peninsula and Korean art was influenced by the Chinese. The Koreans also adopted the Chinese character script. Since the middle of the last century, South Korea has had its own script: Hangeul, which is a simplified version of the Chinese character script. Hangeul was already developed in the fifteenth century, but only introduced after World War II.

After Gyeongju had faded into obscurity for several centuries, it was the Japanese who, during the occupation of Korea in the first half of the twentieth century, put Gyeongju and its history back on the map. It is a small town with almost only low-rise buildings. In one street you will find a traditional market where old ladies sell fruit and vegetables on the street, a little further is a modern shopping street with trendy coffee shops. Korean cuisine, by the way, is one for hot food lovers. Red pepper paste is used almost everywhere, such as in the popular dish bibimbap (rice with vegetables, meat and red pepper sauce), served with traditional side dishes such as gimchi (fermented vegetables). Unlike in Japan, the food here is not eaten with wooden chopsticks, but with metal ones.

The most visible remnant from the Silla period are the ‘tumuli’, ten to twelve meters high grassy mounds that you might think of as the Korean version of the Egyptian pyramids. Kings and other important persons were ‘buried’ by placing them in a wooden box. A great mound of stones and boulders was laid over it and then a layer of earth was placed over it, which was eventually covered with grass. Ordinary people were often buried in this way, but their burial mounds were much smaller. The burial mounds you see everywhere in and around Gyeongju are authentic. The burial mounds in Tumuli Park are located in a neatly landscaped park, giving it something of an open-air museum. It’s strange that those grassy green hills are so very old. Tumuli can also be seen in Wolseong Park. Cheomseongdae is also located here, an astronomical observation tower from the seventh century. The fortress that once stood here, Banwolseong, is unfortunately no longer there.


The next day I take the bus to one of the most visited temples in South Korea: Bulguksa, about fourteen kilometers outside Gyeongju. The first temple complex on this site was built in 528 by order of King Beop-heung, who made Buddhism the state religion. The current complex was built between 751 and 774. The temple was partly destroyed by the Japanese, who invaded the Korean peninsula in 1593, and was only restored in the 1970s. The weather is beautiful and it still quiet when I arrive at the temple. A path leads up to the entrance to the walled complex. Korean temples all have the same structure: a first gate (Iljumum), a second gate (Cheonwangmun) with two (threatening looking) guards on either side and behind it a main building (Daeungjeon) and other halls. Bulguksa also has this layout. Within the gates you will find several courtyards with temple buildings connected by covered corridors. In front of the main building are two pagodas (one of which has been taken apart for renovation). Everything is painted in great detail and in the various rooms (Daeungjeon, Gwaneumjean and Nahanjeon) are large golden Buddha statues. It is a very beautiful complex and very different from the temples I have visited in Japan.


The next day, Saturday, I travel by the KTX via Singyeongju to Daegu, which is only 25 minutes away by high-speed train. The south of South Korea is slightly mountainous and mainly consists of countryside: a lot of agriculture, small villages and the occasional larger city. You also see something here that you see a lot less in other Asian countries: churches. Traditionally, Korea was a Buddhist country with strong Confucian influences, but today Christianity is the largest religion. My hotel in Daegu is reminiscent of the 1970s (a lot of it dark brown), but the couple behind the counter are friendly and my room is already available. I’m going to hit the road again right away, because I want to visit Haeinsa Temple today. This temple is located on Mount Gayasan, about an hour and a quarter by bus west of Daegu.


Haeinsa is one of South Korea’s three ‘jewelry temples’ and is famous for housing Buddha’s religious texts, carved into no fewer than 81,350 wooden panels in the eleventh century: the Tripitaka Koreana. The location of Haeinsa is beautiful, with the top of Gayasan in the background. There are quite a few Korean visitors, but I’m the only westerner, which causes some consternation in a visiting school class. It is a beautiful complex with richly painted buildings. At the back of the complex is Jangkyeongpanjeon where the Tripitata are kept. You can look in between the bars of the windows, it looks like a kind of nine hundred years old library. It took 76 years to carve the more than fifty million (!) characters into the panels. And the lyrics, which have been checked, contain zero errors. The truth, however, is that in the thirteenth century the original Tripitata were destroyed by the Mongols. That same century, the Koreans did the mammoth job all over again.

When you enter Daegu from the highway, you will notice that entire neighborhoods with extremely high residential towers are being built. I noticed that in Busan as well. The difference with Gyeongju in the south, which is really a small provincial town, is big. Daegu is the fourth largest city in the country and a modern, not very special city. From the station you immediately walk into a large car-free shopping area, where it is pleasantly busy on this Saturday afternoon. Loud music is heard from the shops everywhere.


As every empire comes to an end, so did Silla. In 935, power was taken over by the Goryeo dynasty (the English name Korea is a corruption of Goryeo), which in turn was followed in the fourteenth century by the Joseon dynasty. Adding to that Korea was ravaged by invasions by the Mongols in the thirteenth century and by the Japanese in the sixteenth century. The Japanese wanted to control China and Korea was just on the way there. However, the Japanese invasions failed, after which Chinese influence in Korea increased further and Korea almost completely cut itself off from the outside world. During this period, Korea was known as the ‘hermit kingdom’. In the meantime, King Taejo had determined that Korea should have a new capital: Seoul.

To Seoul

The hall of Dongdaegu (Daegu’s KTX station) is not inferior to the terminal of an airport. In addition to Korean eateries, there are also Western chains such as The Coffee Bean and Paris Baguette. Just like you see the inevitable Starbucks, McDonalds, 7-Eleven, Dunkin’ donuts, KFC and Zara everywhere in cities in Japan and South Korea. At eight I take the KTX to Seoul, my last destination on this trip. At a regular speed of 300 kilometers per hour, we drive to the South Korean capital in two hours.


In the middle of Seoul is a mountain: Namsam, a 265 meter high peak with the N-Seoul Tower on top, which you can go to with a cable car and where you have a panoramic view over the enormous metropolis called Seoul. The city is home to twenty million people and construction apparently continued until the mountains prevented further expansion. A bit north of Namsam is the Namdaemun market, the second largest market in Seoul, meaning in all of Korea, only the Dongdaemun market is even bigger. The market occupies a number of streets and side streets full of small shops and market stalls, where you can buy everything, especially lots of clothes. It is mainly cheap stuff that is on offer. More interesting are the countless eateries, simply furnished shops where you can eat all kinds of Korean dishes for a few euros. Just pointing out what looks good works best.

Seoul became the capital of Korea when King Taejo came to power in 1392 and from this time date five palaces in what is now the northern part of central Seoul. From my hostel it’s about a 2.5 kilometer walk. I walk down the business district with high office towers and past the city hall. The old, stately town hall is now the library, and a futuristic glass building has been erected right behind it, which is the current town hall. The last stretch before I reach the palace district, a wide boulevard leads north, past the imposing gray concrete building of the Sejong Theater and the statue of Admiral Yi Shun-shin, a hero in Korea for having defeated the Japanese.


The oldest and largest of the five palaces is Gyeongbokgung. Three times a day there is a changing of the guard at the main gate (Gwanghwamun). The guards look like they probably did in the fourteenth century, including their stylized beards. The changing of the guard is a ritual accompanied by drummers that is fun to watch. Upon entering the walled palace grounds, you first pass three gates, after which you arrive at Geungjeongjeon, the hall where the king’s throne stands. The architectural style is very reminiscent of the temples I have visited before. To the left of the main hall is Gyeonghoeru, a large pavilion overlooking a pond and used for recreation and banquets. Behind this pavilion is Gangnyeongjeon with the private quarters of the royal couple. In the course of history, the palace has endured several fires, destruction and alterations by the Japanese occupiers, but everything has been well reconstructed.


East of Gyeongbokgung is Bukchon Hanok Village, a neighborhood with traditional houses: hanoks. Korea was once full of these types of houses, but during the period of economic growth, many have been demolished to make way for modern apartment complexes and office buildings. This neighborhood has been spared and is still inhabited. In addition to houses, you will also find restaurants and art galleries.

The next day the weather is nice to stroll in the Insadong and Myeongdong districts. Insadong is a neighborhood full of art galleries, traditional Korean restaurants and tea houses. Before coffee became popular in Korea, however, the Koreans were tea drinkers and they still are. In the many tea houses you can drink traditional Korean tea, made with fresh ingredients, which is quite different from Western tea from a teabag. The neighborhood is centered around Insadongil Street and clearly aimed at (foreign) tourists.


Myeongdong is all about shopping. Where Insadong still radiates something small-scale, Myeongdong is unabashedly ‘hip and happening’. Lots of billboards, loud music from the loudspeakers and, above all, lots of shopping people. It seems that life in Seoul revolves around only two things: shopping and eating, because the number of shops, department stores and malls as well as the number of restaurants is enormous. Speaking of food, onigiri was my favorite snack in Japan, in South Korea it is gimbap. Basically the same idea, a roll of stuffed rice in nori, but where the Japanese use rice vinegar, the South Koreans use sesame oil.

Modern Seoul is something of a recent date and the result of the economic growth the country has experienced. Walking in the city, it’s hard to imagine what it would have been like thirty years ago, when all those glass office towers weren’t there yet and before everyone was walking with their smartphone in hand. I’m used to some metropolises, but for some reason I don’t really like Seoul. It is a huge city (the distances are also great in the center) and very busy. There are also a striking number of homeless people around the station.


The Koreans are friendly, but if you have just come from Japan, you will notice that they are a lot less polite. You will not easily hear a Korean say ‘sorry’. On the street they have the obnoxious habit of completely disregarding the fact that you are walking there too. They walk in a straight line from A to B and do not deviate from that line and therefore constantly bump into you. Super annoying. The contrast with the extremely polite Japanese is very big. Anyway, maybe after 3.5 weeks of traveling I’ve just had enough of the hustle and bustle. But before I go home, I have one more day trip that I’m really looking forward to: a visit to the demilitarized zone along the heavily guarded border with North Korea.


On the way north from Seoul, you’ll see mile after mile of barbed wire fences and watchtowers along the river. That’s when you realize: this is not a ‘normal’ area. The Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, DMZ for short, has been in existence since July 27, 1953. It is actually strange to speak of a demilitarized zone, because in reality it is one of the most militarized areas in the world. The four-kilometer-wide DMZ along the 38th parallel forms a buffer between the north and south on either side of the border, or rather, the Line of Control (LoC), because formally there has been a ceasefire and the two countries are still at war. If there’s one place where the Cold War (1945-1990) has continued, it’s here. US President Clinton once called it “The scariest place on earth.”

The part of the DMZ that you can visit is the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjeon. This area is jointly administered by the North and South Koreans and the United Nations. The visit is supervised by American military personnel and is subject to strict security requirements. For example, you are only allowed to photograph at times when permission is explicitly given and you are not allowed to contact or wave at the North Korean military. Even your clothes have to meet a whole list of requirements. And the United Nations Command form that you have to sign on arrival is clear: “A visit to the JSA at Panmunjeon will entail entry into a hostile area, and possible injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” Great…


After we drive into the JSA, the American soldier who accompanies us remarks that there are minefields in the two kilometers on either side of the file line. Not old mines yet to be cleared, no, new mines that are on alert.

On the South Korean side of the LoC is the Freedom Building, on the other side of the border is a North Korean building, Panmungak. In between are five identical, low buildings. On the left a gray Allied building, on the right a gray building of the North Koreans and in the middle three buildings painted in United Nations blue. In the middle building, the armistice between North and South Korea was concluded in 1953, after two years of negotiations. Talks between north and south are still taking place here. South Korean soldiers stand guard on the corners of the buildings. Sometimes there are also guards on the corners on the North Korean side, so the two parties look each other in the eye from a few meters distance. Today only one North Korean soldier is standing guard at the large building on the other side of the border. I think he is the most photographed man in North Korea today.

The ceasefire line runs right through the blue buildings and the inside conference table is also exactly on the border, so that the North Korean delegation sits at the table on their side of the border and the South Koreans on their side. As a visitor (and we’re lucky: we can visit the building today) you can walk around the conference table. So with one step I’m on North Korean territory. A very weird idea!


There are several observation towers on both sides of the file line. At ‘Observation Tower 3’ you are enclosed by North Korean territory on three sides and you can into the communist country for miles. White, one meter high poles indicate where the file line runs. On the North Korean side is a no less than 160 meters high flagpole with a huge North Korean flag. You also overlook ‘Propaganda Village’, a kind of fake village that the North Koreans have built to show the southerners the ideal-typical North Korean paradise. But actually no one lives in Propaganda Village. Every day a bus full of North Koreans is brought in, who spend the day there and go home in the evening.

Then we drive past the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners of war were exchanged at the end of the Korean War. Everyone on the bridge was given the opportunity to choose between north or south, after which there was no turning back. Hence the name. Finally, we visit the ‘Third Tunnel’. This is one of four tunnels discovered so far that South Koreans say North Korea dug under the DMZ in preparation for an invasion of the south by the north (North Korea, of course, denies this). The first tunnel was discovered in 1974 and it is believed that there are more undiscovered tunnels. The tunnel runs about 70 meters below the earth’s surface and it took dynamite to get through the rock. Prior to the tunnel visit you will be shown a cringe-inducing anti-North Korean and the-free-west-glorifying propaganda movie. With a helmet you can walk down the tunnel, until a few meters before the border with North Korea, where the southerners have placed a thick concrete wall.

Apart from the fact that dozens of tourists a day visit the DMZ, it is a place that is still the center of a regional conflict that regularly leads to global diplomatic tensions. The Korean peninsula is still a link in the geopolitical battlefield, with North Korea relying on the support of China and South Korea on the support of just about the entire West. South Korea says it is striving for reunification of the two Koreas, but many South Koreans do not want that at all. The well-performing South Korean economy would suffer far too much, like the reunification of West and East Germany.

I find it very special to be here, on the border with one of the most closed countries in the world, face to face with North Korean soldiers. You feel the tension, the fragility of the truce and the sensitivity: one misstep and a panic reaction from the other side and hell breaks loose. Or as the American soldier warned: don’t accidentally step across the border, because we can’t come over to rescue you. The DMZ is a very special place to end my trip to South Korea. Tomorrow, Thursday 15 May, I will fly back to the Netherlands. Time to go home.