Return to the “Calm Morning” land

Last December, my family and myself went back to Korea. For me, it was a return to the “Calm Morning” land, for my family, it was their first trip.

If you remember, my first trip to Korea took place in early December 2017. This was the occasion of discovering some amazing places such as Busan and the wide variety of places in Seoul. Korea and Japan are often compared and contrasted, but, per se, the experience is quite different. Where Japan is a land very much imbued with animism and hence every inch of landscape is infused with spirituality, Korea is more of a familiar terrain for Westerners. Christianity permeated Korea and makes its people also more relatable in various manners. This was very clear when my family expressed a feeling of being welcomed into the country, compared to Japan – where you cannot shake off that feeling of being “gaijin”.

Landing in the “Calm Morning” land at dawn

For logistic reasons, we had to take red-eyes flights from Hong Kong to Seoul. My wife and daughter flew Cathay, while I flew with Korean Airlines. It was actually my very first experience flying with them.

View from terminal one at sunrise
The view from Terminal 1 at Incheon airport in Seoul.

As I flew Korean Air, I landed at terminal 2, whereas most airlines take off from terminal 1. I thus had to transfer terminal with my luggages, in the cold and furthermore, with two times more luggage as my wife had charged me with the gifts for our friends (Check photo below!).

Mitch and Maria-Sophia
Mitch and Maria-Sophia at the airport

Our plan had been of showering at the airport, dropping the bags at hotel and rushing off to make the most of our time in Seoul. Alas! What sounds great in theory is not always in practice. We ended leaving the airport only at… 11! The Limousine bus of KAL took us pretty near to our hotel, namely the Novotel Dongdaemun. It however took pretty much close to 45 minutes!

Dongdaemun, a lively area

Dongdaemun may be a bit far from the historical center of Seoul, yet it is an extremely lively place. It has quite a number of department stores (shopping is thus one of the most important activities over there), but it also has the very photogenic museum of design.

The design museum of Seoul
The design museum of Seoul

This museum is very interesting, not only for its photogenic aspect, but also because at some locations, you can find a piano made available for people to play on.

Piano at design museum
These piano are made available for anyone who wishes to play and offer a performance to the public.

We thus had the occasion of assisting to a four-hand performance by two young Koreans, playing Christmas carols (which I, of course, streamed live on Periscope).

Beyond the design museum, the Dongdaemun area has an extraordinary vibe.

A little photographer

This time around, Maria-Sophia was documenting our trip with her own camera, a small compact Nikon.

Me shot by MS
Maria-Sophia managed to shoot me, as I was photographing her and her mom…You can admire the blue sky behind!

Maria-Sophia also understood perfectly the concept of being close to the subject in her picture of the two pianists.

Design museum piano
A live performance of Christmas carols by the two Korean pianists at the design museum

Later, we moved on to the Gyeongbokgung palace, where Maria-Sophia insisted to take a few shots of Mitchy and me. I have to say she did a pretty good job of it.

And, of course, Maria-Sophia demonstrated her keen eye by catching a snapshot of a lady in hanbok inside the courtyard of the palace.

lady in hanbok
Maria-Sophia captures a dynamic pic of a lady in Hanbok inside gyeongbokgung palace

An unusual encounter

Sometimes around the world, you have some weird coincidences. Here, it was my encounter with a scooter sporting a… Monaco plate!

A surprising sight: a scooter with a Monaco plate in Seoul
A scooter with a Monaco plate in Seoul.

I could not find any explanation as to how such a scooter was allowed to ride in Korea, nor why it had a Monaco plate… But it was the interesting sight of the day.

The following days, we were to visit Nami island and then head to Busan.

The Saewol tragedy : still a scar in the heart of parents

During my visit in Korea, in December 2017, one of the most moving moments was when I came across a protest / shrine about the victims of the Saewol tragedy. It as a moment where I truly grasped what a scar this tragedy left in the heart of the parents and of many Koreans.

The sinking of the Saewol

The MV Saewol was  a ferry ensuring the liaison between Incheon (near Seoul) and Jeju, a very famous holiday island in Korea. On 16 July 2014, the Saewol sank while carrying 476 passengers, of which a large part were secondary school students from Danwon High School.

The ship had multiple issues with its cargo capacities and its weighting. As a consequence, when it took a series of turns too quickly, it began listing to port, eventually taking in water and sinking in two and a half hours.

The tragedy was compounded by reports that the ship’s crew called passengers to stay put, even as the ship was taking water into the passenger compartments. Trained to be listening to authority, many of the young students obeyed the instructions, despite the desperate situation. The captain of the ship and her crew eventually abandoned the ship, while keeping on instructing passengers to stay put. Obviously, many of the students who followed the instructions went down with the ship.

A tragedy turns into a criticism of the whole society

This shocked the whole country and after the bodies of many of the students were recovered, their smartphones were also found. Some desperate and heart-rendering accounts of last farewells came through. For the families, a further degree of grief was reached when learning that the students died in atrocious conditions, drowning with a terrible agony. One can only imagine how the heart of loving parents was affected.

The incorrect instructions given by the crew of the Saewol, and the obedience of the kids to these absurd orders, further led the Korean society to question its own organization and respect for authority. Similarly, the lack of regulations and the fact that the coast guard were not even aware of restrictions placed on the ship by its inspection authorities only helped fuel the anger.

Grieving parents

Many parents, inflamed by remarks by journalists and/or politicians that they should not criticize the government or that the deaths were of little importance compared to car accidents, took to the streets to protest. More largely, the movement was still visible on Saejong-daro, the main avenue facing directly the Gyeongbokgung, the ancient royal palace. It is where I had probably my most moving encounter, with a lone father, holding a stand at a makeshift memorial for the victims of the tragedy.

Stand of Saewol victims in Seoul
The lone stand of the Saewol victims parents in Seoul

This father asked me to sign a petition whereby, they wished to ask the Korean government to enhance safety rules for ships. He told me how much he missed his son. When I signed his petition, he gave me what has become the symbol of the movement in Korea: a little yellow and orange ribbon which you can see on the picture below.

Memorial to victims of Saewol
A makeshift memorial to the victims of the Saewol tragedy

The parents of these kids have suffered an unexplained and painful loss. But some of them took the pain from this loss and transformed it in energy to try and change the situation in a country where established authority and practices are difficult to question.

A moving encounter

Most of my posts on this blog are about travel and the experience of visiting new places in Asia and in other countries. However, what I enjoy most in these travels is encountering people and understanding their lives. And although painfully moving, this encounter has been also one of the most emotional in my trip. Meeting a grieving father and sharing a few moments with him, while he tried to avoid other parents suffering the same fate brings a renewed faith in humanity.

These Korean parents deserve our support from wherever we may stand. 4 million signatures were collected by the parents, but the South Korean parliament still has to legislate on stronger rules. The strength of vested interests still preempts the grief of families. If you wish to learn more or support these families in their fight to change this situation, you can sign the petition or get more information here. And if you are in Seoul, do not hesitate to take some time to go and visit the memorial for the victims.

Seoul: a walk through Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbok

When in Seoul, an obligatory part of your visit as a first-timer, should be the traditional village of Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbok, the old Korean Royal Palace. With the majestic background of the Bukhansan mountain, this palace is in a magnificent position. The Blue House, the presidential palace is also located in the same area, in what is considered as “auspicious” grounds. The position of the palaces is also favorable in Feng Shui terms (back to the mountain). Bukchon Hanok, by contrast is an area of Seoul which retained its traditional architecture houses and hence offers a glimpse into traditional Korea.

Bukchon Hanok, a place for selfies

With its traditional buildings still inhabited by locals and by local businesses, Bukchon Hanok is a perfect location for selfies. Inhabitants are kind, welcoming and gentle and take a great care of their environment.

Bukchon Hanok and flowers
A side street of Bukchon Hanok with lovely flowers

In fact, the area itself is absolutely lovely and can be the object of nice pictures across the board.

Bike in Bukchon Hanok
A bike rests against a wall in Bukchon Hanok

Riding the wave, a number of businesses rent out the Hanbok, the traditional Korean dress for tourists.

Obviously, it is only Asian tourists who give into this mania, Westerners would be far less credible… But still, some pretty Japanese girls love to dress up, a bit like foreigners do in Japan with kimonos.

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With its quiet areas and lovely settings, Bukchon Hanok is an ideal place for intemporal pictures. Some details betray the girls trying to play the game, though, like the shoes… Or posing next to a very modern plastic radish!

The Blue House

On one end, Gyeongbok heads towards a gigantic avenue of Seoul, Saejong-daero where is located the US embassy. On the other end, it faces the Korean presidential palace, the famous “Blue House”. With its back to the Bukhasan mountain, the setting is quite majestic and throws back to the former royal palace built on the same area.

Blue House in Seoul
The Korean “Blue House”, the presidential palace of the South Korean president.

Of course, security is tight in that area, as back in 1968, North Korean agents had attempted to kill the Korean President by infiltrating commandos at the Blue House. However, the touristic nature of the area and the sheer beauty of the surroundings is absolutely not comparable to the tension that can be felt in France, for example.

A rebuilt palace

Gyeongbok was built originally in 1395, under the Joseon dynasty. Abandoned a first time in the 1500s, after a fire, it was rebuilt in the XIXth century. On that occasion, it drew its inspiration from the traditional Korean architecture used in the original palace.

In the beginning of the XXth century, when the Japanese invaded Korea, they undertook the destruction of Gyeongbok, as it was a symbol of the independence of Korea.

As a consequence, the current Gyeongbok is a reconstruction of the original palace from its ruins. Despite this sad fact, the reconstruction did a good job of showcasing the traditional Korean architecture that you can already glimpse in the Bukchon Hanok area.

Hyojagak building
A building called “Hyojagak” and its gate, erected to protect a special stone for a son of a Korean King

The gardens are very peaceful, despite the huge number of tourists.

To the right, you can see the main 5-level pagoda before which many tourists have their picture taken.

Main pagoda
The main pagoda of Gyeongbok

A very complex and photogenic palace

As you delve into the various alleys of the palace, you realize that the sprawling complex was almost a small city in its own. A whole area is devoted to the royal harem (and the paradox is that many female tourists love to have their picture taken there).

Picture in the concubine area
A young Asian tourist in Hanbok has her picture taken in the concubine area.

The most interesting was to see the food storage area. Apparently, the builders of the palace used a natural slope to  move food from the jars in the storage area to the palace itself. This complexity and the intricacy of the development give you a small hint of how developed the Koreans were in their golden age.

Central throne hall
The central throne hall of Gyeongbok

A fusion of history and modernity

The view around Gyeongbok is mostly free, especially towards the mountain. When you turn towards Saejong-daero, however, the nature of the view changes. It is a moment where you realize that Korea is also a place where history and modernity are intimately linked. The modern buildings towering above the gates of Gyeongbok announce a return to the bustle of Seoul before you even set your foot outside.

Gyeongbok history and modernity
Gyeongbok gate seen on the side facing Saejong-daero

Another interesting shot on that side are the guards standing watch at the gate. However, the difficult part is managing to snap a shot without tourists standing by their side.

Guard Gyeongbok
The guards of Gyeongbok are a must shoot with their traditional costume, if you manage to catch a moment without tourist by their side.

When returning to modernity, I came across a memorial for the victims of the Saewol disaster, but I will talk about it in another post.

How to get there

When visiting the area Bukchon Hanok and Gyeongbok are easily combined. Most people start their tour through Gyeongbok as it is on the main Saejong-Daero avenue. My choice was rather to start walking through Bukchon Hanok, then moving to Gyeongbok. It is a lovely transition, especially if you go there in the morning. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to capture girls in Hanbok and relatively empty streets. It is difficult to give instructions on how to get there, but there is no train station or bus stop within Bukchon Hanok, so it will always involve a short walk to get there.

 

First day in Korea: Nami island

Nami island is a little locality in the neighbourhood of Seoul. It shot to fame when the Korean drama “Winter Sonata” became an Asian (and in a lesser measure worldwide) hit in 2002. Since then, the island has sought to build on the fame brought by this unexpected notoriety by creating an environment catering to the tourists, but also with its own personality. As an example, they try to showcase the art of local artists, making the place something catering to K-drama afficionados as well as to hipster bloggers.

Easy to reach

Nami island has another asset: its ease to reach. You can get there simply by taking  a metro from any place in Seoul. I was located in a guesthouse in Gangnam for my stay (I quickly regretted that decision). So, for me, any trip even within Seoul involved heavy commutes, in this case, getting to the interchange station of Wangsimni. From there, you must catch the line direction Chuncheon. You have about 1/2 hr to 3/4 hr ride until the station of Gapyeong, where you must get down.

Metro in Seoul
The metro in Seoul is very convenient and bilingual in its signals and announcements.

Taking the metro in Seoul

The metro in itself is clean, convenient and fast. The one inconvenience is that you might have to carry any heavy luggage up and down the stairs. Otherwise, signage and announcements are bilingual and it is extremely easy to navigate for foreigners.

Metro wagon in Seoul
Sideways seating in the metro, just like in Hong Kong

Interesting cultural observations

Obviously, for Asia, or the XXIst century in general, most people in the metro are on their smartphones. But it was a lovely surprise to see a young girl knitting to pass her time on the metro to Gapyeong, rather than keying or browsing her smartphone. It is may be the first time in Asia, I that see a young lady passing her time on a more traditional craft. It was a lovely sight to behold.

Girls knitting in Seoul Metro
In the XXIst century, there are still young girls who enjoy knitting and not being on smartphones…

Gapyeong station

Once you arrive in Gapyeong station you must still transfer to Nami island. That means either taking  a taxi (between 4,000 to 6,000 KRW) or a tour bus (6,000 KRW, but it includes return and transfer to “Little France”, which I skipped). If you arrive too late, you will be drowned in a crowd of tourists all heading to Nami Island as well. You may run the risk of not being able to catch  the tour bus, which leaves every hour. I had to stand for the whole way, so my advice, if you can, is arrive and leave early.

Meanwhile, at the station, you can enjoy the local food. I recommend the cheese toast at the little restaurant (cheese apparently includes Cabbage in the Korean recipe).

Cheese toast
The Cheese toast is to recommend in this eatery.

If after having eaten your cheese toast, you still have time to kill, there is a little coffee shop, but expect it to be crowded as well. And don’t wait too long, or you might not have any seats left on the bus!

Waiting for tour bus
A nice place to have a coffee while waiting for the tour bus

Otherwise, there is a little exhibition in the Gapyeong station, showcasing the history of human settlements in the area. Interesting if you wish to know more about the area.

Gapyeong station exhibition
Exhibition of Gapyeong station

 

Transferring to the island

Nami island is… an island! That means, you must transfer there, and you have two choices: either taking a zipline (but that involves leaving behind any heavy bags, so not an option for me as I was carrying camera and drone…) or taking a ferry. Prices are around 38,000 KRW for zipline (inclusive the return by ferry) or 8,000 KRW for the ferry. It was around 0° C that day, so most tourists remained inside the ferry.

 

Nami island zipline tower
If you wish to transfer to Nami island by zipline, you can go up this tower

Nami island

Couple island.
Nami island is also very much a place for couples. Here just before the ferry.

It must be mentioned that the island declared its “cultural independence”, so that they have everywhere flags and “institutions” (a central bank… guards or so-called “police”) of the “Naminara republic”. This is also to collect a “visa fee” from visitors (but it is included in your ferry ticket).

The ferry can get quite crowded with a majority of Asian tourists (due to the influence of K-drama and instagram).

Nami island ferry
On the return the central area was truly covered with people

Upon arrival on the island, i managed to see some locals warming up at an open fire lit to warm themselves.

locals warming at fire Nami Island
Locals warming at an open fire near the ferry pier of Nami island

The crowd makes a difference

Nami island is a very beautiful place, but the crowds of tourists that jam-pack the place do not make it very enjoyable. The best views are out of the beaten tracks.

 

Besides this aspect, Nami island understood very well how to cultivate the XXIst century instagram-fanatic crowds by providing a number of “instagrammesque” spots.

Upon arrival, for example, a frozen fountain…

 

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The real treasure is elsewhere

 

As usual, the real treasures of Nami island are found when you walk away from the crowd. Take the side paths and you can discover really lovely scenes. Like squirrels running around and friendly enough to let you approach very close to shoot their portrait…

Squirrel on Nami Island
Squirrels are pretty friendly on Nami Island, probably because visitors feed them a lot.

Or you can find some truly lovely scenes in autumn, without people in your frame. Like this bucolic autumn scene near a little stream.

Nami Island
Nami island, the place made famous by the K-drama “Winter sonata”.

Or you could fly a done and try to shoot some interesting landscapes… Below, you can see the main alley most people walk through.

Drone shot Nami island
A drone shot on Nami island at a limited altitude of 30m

Again, walking outside of the beaten tracks is the best chance to get different shots from the thousands of visitors. The natural beauty of the island is not appreciated enough outside of all those crowds rushing to the K-drama spots or being sucked in by the tourist honeypots.

Nami island
Nami island: outside of the beaten tracks

In conclusion: an interesting excursion

Nami island is not a “must see”, but it is certainly worth visiting, as long as you a). beat the crowds; b). take a walk outside of touristic tracks; c). look for nature and not for selfie spots.

But then again, if you must visit Korea and have a limited amount of time, this is one place you can give a pass, unless you are a fan of K-drama and “winter sonata” in particular.