The Korean peninsula is a tantalizingly unexplored slice of East Asia – a pine-clad land of mountains, misty archipelagos and rice paddies of emerald green, studded with urban pockets of incomparable joie de vivre. While its troubled history has made Korea’s very existence nothing short of miraculous, amazingly its traditions and customs have largely survived intact – and for visitors, this highly distinctive culture is an absolute joy to dive into.
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Having gone their separate ways in 1953 after the catastrophic Korean War – essentially a civil war, but one largely brought about by external forces, which left millions dead and flattened almost the whole peninsula – the two Koreas are now separated by the spiky twin frontiers of the Demilitarized Zone. North Korea has armed itself to the teeth since 1953, stagnated in its pursuit of a local brand of Communism and become one of the least accessible countries in the world. Unbelievably, many foreigners seem to expect something similar of South Korea, which shows just how well kept a secret this fascinating place really is: beyond the glittering city of Seoul, gimchi, dog meat and taekwondo, little is known about the country in the outside world (and in actual fact, one of those four has largely gone the way of the dodo anyway).
After the war, the South gradually embraced democracy and has since gone on to become a powerful and dynamic economy. Its cities, bursting with places to visit, are a pulsating feast of eye-searing neon, feverish activity and round-the-clock business. Here you can shop till you drop at markets that never close, feast on eye-wateringly spicy food, get giddy on a bottle or two of soju, then sweat out the day’s exertions at a night-time sauna. However, set foot outside the urban centres and your mere presence will cause quite a stir – in the remote rural areas life continues much as it did before the “Economic Miracle” of the 1970s, and pockets of islands exist where no foreigner has ever set foot.
And for all its newfound prosperity, the South remains a land steeped in tradition. Before being abruptly choked off by the Japanese occupation in 1910, an unbroken line of more than one hundred kings existed for almost two thousand years – their grassy burial mounds have yielded thousands of golden relics – and even the capital, Seoul, has a number of palaces dating back to the fourteenth century. The wooden hanok housing of decades gone by may have largely given way to rows of apartment blocks, but these traditional dwellings can still be found in places, and you’ll never be more than a walk away from an immaculately painted Buddhist temple. Meanwhile, Confucian-style formal ceremonies continue to play an important part in local life, and some mountains still even host shamanistic rituals.
As for the Korean people themselves, they are a real delight: fiercely proud, and with a character almost as spicy as their food, they’re markedly eager to please foreigners who come to live or holiday in their country. Within hours of arriving, you may well find yourself with new friends in tow, racing up a mountainside, lunching over a delicious barbequed galbi, throwing back makkeolli until dawn, or singing the night away at a noraebang. Few travellers leave without tales of the kindness of Korean strangers, and all of them wonder why the country isn’t a more popular stop on the international travel circuit.
Korea is still something of an unknown territory, and more than half of all its visitors get no further than Seoul. One of the largest and most technically advanced cities in the world, the capital regularly confounds expectations by proving itself steeped in history. Here, fourteenth-century palaces, imperial gardens, teeming markets and secluded tearooms continue to exude charm among a maze of skyscrapers and shopping malls. From Seoul, anywhere in the country is reachable within a day, but the best day-trip by far is to the DMZ, the strip of land that separates the two Koreas from coast to coast.
Gyeonggi, the province that surrounds Seoul, is a largely unappealing area dissected by the roads and railways that snake their way into the capital, but two of its cities certainly deserve a visit: Suwon, home to a wonderful UNESCO-listed fortress dating from the late eighteenth century; and cosmopolitan Incheon, where you can eat some of the best food in the country before making your way to the islands of the West Sea. By contrast, the neighbouring province of Gangwon is unspoilt and stuffed full of attractions – in addition to a number of national parks, of which craggy Seoraksan is the most visited, you can head to the unspoilt beaches and colossal caves that surround the small city of Samcheok, or peek inside a genuine American warship and North Korean submarine north of the sleepy fishing village of Jeongdongjin.
Stretching down from Gangwon to the South Sea lie the markedly traditional Gyeongsang provinces, home to some of the peninsula’s most popular attractions. Foremost among these is gorgeous Gyeongju; capital of the Silla dynasty for almost a thousand years, and extremely laid-back by Korean standards, it’s spotted with the grassy burial tombs of the many kings and queens who ruled here. There’s enough in the surrounding area to fill at least a week of sightseeing – most notable are Namsan, a small mountain area peppered with trails, tombs and some intriguing Buddhas, and the sumptuously decorated Bulguksa temple, another sight on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Although less picturesque as a town, Andong is almost as relaxed as Gyeongju, and a superb base from which to access Dosan Seowon, a remote Confucian academy, and the charmingly dusty village of Hahoe, a functioning showcase of traditional Korean life. The region’s rustic charm is actually best appreciated offshore on the windswept island of Ulleungdo, an extinct volcanic cone that rises precipitously from the East Sea, and where tiny fishing settlements cling barnacle-like to its coast. Thrills with a more urban flavour can be had in Busan, Korea’s second city, which has an atmosphere markedly different from Seoul; as well as the most raucous nightlife outside the capital, it has the best fish market in the country, and a number of excellent beaches on its fringes.
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Even more characterful are the Jeolla provinces, which make up the southwest of the peninsula. Left to stagnate by the government while Korea’s economy kicked into gear, they have long played the role of the renegade, though this energy is now being rechannelled. Violent political protests took place in regional capital Gwangju as recently as 1980, though the city has reinvented itself to become one of the artiest and most business-savvy in the land. Jeonju has a similar feel, plus a delightful district of traditional hanok housing, and is justly famed for its wonderful, flavoursome cuisine. Earthy Mokpo is the hub for ferry trips to a mind-boggling number of West Sea islands, dotted with fishing communities where life has changed little in decades, while inland there are a number of excellent national parks.
The Chungcheong provinces at the centre of the country are bypassed by many travellers, but this is a shame, as they contain some fine sights. The old Baekje capitals of Gongju and Buyeo provide glimpses of a dynasty long dead, Daecheon beach hosts a rumbustious annual mud festival that may well be Korea’s most enjoyable event, and there are temples galore – the gigantic golden Buddha at Beopjusa is surrounded by 1000m-high peaks, while the meandering trails and vivid colour schemes at Guinsa make it the most visually stimulating temple in the land.
Lying within a ferry ride of the mainland’s southern shore is the island of Jeju, a popular honeymoon destination for Koreans. While it’s undoubtedly a touristy place, it has its remote stretches and anyone who has climbed the volcanic cone of Hallasan, walked through the lava tubes of Manjanggul or watched the sun go down from Yakcheonsa temple will tell you the trip is more than worthwhile.
And finally, of course, there’s North Korea. A visit to one of the world’s most feared and most fascinating countries will instantly earn you kudos – even experienced travellers routinely put the DPRK at the top of their “most interesting” list. Visits don’t come cheap and can only be made as part of a guided tour, but the country’s inaccessibility brings an epic quality to its few officially sanctioned sights.