South Korea: Wait! What?

Harry S. Truman
33rd U.S. President

Traveling to South Korea has been on my bucket list for years. I’m still not sure why it took me so long. I flew out of Taiwan and booked a Novotel in the Dongdaemun section of Seoul. The hotel is quite a distance from the airport and I planned on taking the Airport’s Express Train, then getting to my hotel via the Metro. After clearing customs, I completely forgot and booked a ride from Uber. After that decision took a turn for the worse, my stay in South Korea never really recovered.

Uber no no!

For starters, the Uber app only worked with a Korean keyboard. A woman at the information desk helped me. I thanked her and headed out to waiting area. The driver arrived, got out of his car, and put my luggage in the trunk. That took just enough time for airport security to notice the type of car he was driving and begin questioning him. Turned out, he was using his work vehicle, from another taxi company, to pickup Uber passengers. As one enforcement officer read the poor driver the riot act, another took out his phone and began recording. At one point, there were five officials surrounding the car. With help, I ordered another Uber.

I wasn’t really expecting this.

The following day, I went on one of the many DMZ tours you can book in Seoul. There was no hotel pickup, so I took a taxi to the closest departure point. After a short stop, to pick up passengers, we made the hour drive to the Imjingak Resort. Our bus parked across from one of the amusement park rides. Thankfully, that section was closed. A few people in the group opted for the gondola ride with views of South Korea’s northern most border. For the rest of us, there was a park with a lot of war-related monuments. This first stop also featured the entrance to one of the North Korean tunnels. We were able to walk through it and back. All of these attractions are available while you’re waiting for your time slot to drive into the DMZ.

Entering the DMZ

After going through a security checkpoint, where military officials matched faces to passports, we were on our way to the Dora Observatory. The observatory is on the South Korean side of the 38th parallel and provides views across the Demilitarized Zone. We were able to see the North Korean territory through binoculars. Afterwards, we took a short ride around Daeseong-dong, a small village with South Korean residents that lies within the Demilitarized Zone. Then, we headed back to Seoul. A protest, blocking our way back to the drop off point, meant we’d be dropped near a metro stop. The only information I was given was to walk towards the station. I think that finding my way back to the hotel took longer than the tour.

Haenyeo divers mural

I was more than happy to leave Seoul for Jeju Island. It is is officially recognised by UNESCO as a World Natural Heritage Site. The short flight from Seoul to Jeju Island is the busiest air route in the world. Often called the Hawaii of South Korea, the island is well known for its seafood, especially what is caught by Jeju’s famous female deep-sea divers (haenyeo). These women are all aged 60 and above. My hotel was close to the airport and almost across the street from a Hop on Hop off tour bus. I used the bus to get around the island and to especially get to the beach. I would love to return and spend time at a hotel near the beach. There’s so much to do and see in South Korea, but I was running out of time.

Jeju Island: The Hawaii of South Korea.

I ordered room service, my final night on Jeju Island. Although a simple meal, it turned out to be the best one I had in South Korea. The meal came with a small bowl of soup. It was delicious! I still can’t stop thinking about it. I flew back to Seoul and checked into a hotel, near the airport, with a free shuttle. South Korea did not live up to my hype. I needed time, much more time than I gave it. I thought it would be like my shorter stays in Taiwan, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In each location, I was able to find one thing that made my short stay there truly amazing. South Korea shut that down. It demands the same amount of time I gave Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. South Korea makes you work for it. I’m looking forward to my return.

From Seoul, I unexpectedly arrived in Tel Aviv the same time as a friend and colleague from Duke University. After a short stay in Tbilisi, I took the train to Armenia. I’m currently in Yerevan, ten short miles from where I served, as a Peace Corps volunteer. Next, I need to be in Italy, in June, to meet up with friends. There’s no route or plan, just four years and six more months to go! XOXO—GGT

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