Friday, 12 October 2012


One of the longest public holidays on the Korean calendar is Chuseok. Taking place in the middle of Autumn, Chuseok is, or at least traditionally was, a three day harvest festival. For Koreans this break is often spent with family, visiting hometowns, eating songpyeon (a kind of rice cake), and paying their respects to ancestral spirits. As we both lack a Korean family this left us free to vacation for the five day weekend. It comes as no surprise that this period is also the worst time of the year for traffic congestion. Aiming to avoid this nuisance, a lot of foreigners flee overseas. We decided to ignore this wisdom and instead headed straight for Seoul, which turned out to be as empty as it ever gets, although still quite crowded by our standards. In the end not a minute of our holiday was lost to traffic, and we even made it up to the capital city in record time.

Seoul is a convenient place to stay as it provides numerous options for travelling to nearby cities and provinces. It is also home to a wealth of great places to shop and eat, a luxury we took advantage of as often as possible during our stay. We picked a hotel within walking distance of the bus terminal in Gangnam and by noon on Saturday were set up to visit several of the best sights Korea has to offer. The weather was perfect too, just as it was promised to be during this most photogenic of seasons.

Early on Sunday we departed for Suwon, the capital city of Gyeonggi Province. Sitting at the end of a Seoul metro line, this is a quick and easy destination to hit. We were surprised to find the streets a complete mess upon our arrival. We must have missed quite the party. That was fine though, as we were in town to explore the World Heritage listed Hwaseong Fortress. This nearly six kilometre long wall surrounds the city centre, ascending and descending hills as it links up four gigantic entrance gates. In the crisp morning air we enjoyed a pleasant bit of exercise walking around the wall. Not long before lunch we marched inward to reach Haenggung Palace, where we discovered a cultural festival in full swing. It was a charming scene, even in the blinding midday sun.

For Monday's excursion we had booked our bus tickets well in advance. This cautious planning proved necessary, as the return trip from Sokcho was sold out until the next day. Sokcho is a city that rests on the eastern side of Korea in Gangwon Province. It has a nice beach, a small town vibe, and a lot of fishing going on. It is a popular stop for tourists due to its proximity to Seoraksan National Park, one of the most picturesque nature reserves and mountain ranges in the country. Predictably, that is why we were there, along with a few thousand others. It really didn't seem that busy until we made it into the queue to buy tickets for the aerial cable car, which would take us a kilometre upwards for a serious view of, well, everything the eye could see. The wait ended up being around an hour, as we were early enough to beat the real rush. The ascent was exciting and the view breathtaking. This would also provide our first, but not last, holiday interaction with squirrels. Photos do not do justice to the pristine beauty of this area, far removed from the crowded cities that most of the population resides in.

With plenty of time to fill before our late bus back to Seoul we bumbled south to Naksan Temple. Apart from the pathway of spiders, this was a tranquil place to visit, with everything we have come to find familiar about Buddhist temples. There was also the bonus attraction of a great view out over the Sea of Japan. As the sun was beginning to set we found ourselves back in Sokcho, walking along the waterfront. This unplanned detour turned out to be one of the nicest moments of our Chuseok weekend, and even reminded us a little of home, save for the absence of wind. And so we ended the longest day of our break, strolling through a sleepy part of this quaint city as the last golden rays spread out across Cheongcho lake.

Unfortunately for our tired bodies we had a plan for Tuesday and it involved getting out of bed. Namiseom is a tiny island found near Chuncheon, the capital city of Gangwon Province. Amazingly, this can also be reached by riding the Seoul metro, for just a tad more than an hour. Less amazing, the train was packed, and we had to take turns sitting. Namiseom advertises itself as a place for couples to savor romantic strolls amongst tall, celestially placed trees. In a different light, its history involves treason and an assumed gravesite being turned into an amusement park by a tourism company. This may explain the peculiar mix of sights and activities that fill the gorgeous plot, from pseudo-yurts to a flying fox that reaches from the mainland. Not only did we get to chase squirrels here, but chipmunks too! We never did find the ostriches, though.

On the morning of our final day in Seoul we made our way slowly over to the food court in the Central City Shinsegae department store. This is not just any regular food court, it is, as far as we can tell, heaven on earth. The quality and range of food available is almost enough to make it worth working a retail job in one of the overpriced stores above. We had sushi, kebabs, fresh fruit juice, and cake. Then we returned home, satisfied with our five days full of inspiring places, flawless weather, and delicious food.

You can view the rest of our photos right here.

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