South Korea: The challenges and rewards of this beautiful country

Green as far as the eye can see at the abundant national parks, colourful industrious cities and stunning beaches and coastlines that will surprise you with their beauty; South Korea is full of wonder that will make you think “damn, why wasn’t this on our to-do list sooner?”. This is exactly how we feel as I look back on our time in this wonderful country.

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Let me just explain why I noted the challenges in the title of this post. South Korea is really not set up for the international traveler, least of all the backpacker (Seoul being an exception). We found some smaller cities and islands very challenging when it came to communicating as we knew little to no Korean. Sometimes this could prove to be quite frustrating, but the Korean people were so lovely and found good humour in trying to help us communicate with them. Looking back, this made our experience in Korea a good one as it helped us to grow as backpackers and learn from the challenges we faced in a country better equip for the domestic Korean traveler.

Seoul

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The streets of South Korea’s capital are just so vibrant and alive! We began our adventures in this country here and we ended them here as well. This made a total of 2 weeks we stayed for and we could’ve stayed longer there is just that much going on here!

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The artists were spraying her as we arrived to our accommodation. So talented!

We first stayed in Itaewon, the streets that come to life with fashion shopping, restaurants and market stalls that reminded me of Thailand! The life here is so multi-cultural, think of your favourite cuisine, you can get it here. Think of a cuisine you have never tried but would like to; you can get it here. A cuisine you’d never in your life like to try? Yep, you can get that here too! I felt as though the whole world was packed into Seoul.

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The view from the top of the stairs of the War Memorial Museum

We visited the War Memorial of Korea and spent a full afternoon exploring the many different levels. The entrance grounds to the main building left me feeling a sense of pride for my country. They have each country; from the United Nations who fought alongside them or aided in someway, honoured with it’s own plaque, monument and flag.  We learned much about the history of war on the ground floor which gave a good base of knowledge and information for the next 2 sections of more recent affairs which we came to this memorial museum for.

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Beware the Soju!!! Korea’s extremely tasty and dangerous favourite alcoholic beverage of choice. We bought some from the supermarket to drink before and after dinner with our mates Joe and Gemma and we all thought it was so yummy and easy to drink…so much so that we all ended up pissed as farts and lets just say we had to do a major clean-up of our Air bnb place after this night! Oops. Rookie foreigners.

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My new Rilakuma friend!

In our Seoul visit, round two (we did a circle trip around the country, start to finish in Seoul) we decided to take a tour of the infamous DMZ that borders between South and North Korea. Tensions here high and there are a few rules you should abide when you take the tour. Our bus took us from our pick up point in Seoul all the way to the DMZ area. Read all about our visit to the DMZ here.

Sokcho- Seoraksan National Park

Seoraksan National Park is home to a most rugged landscape boasting rocky peaks and deep valleys. We took a bus from Seoul straight to Sokcho and stayed in a hotel close to the park. On the day we planned to hike there were 140km/h winds and for good reason the hikes to the peaks were closed to visitors for safety reasons. The next day luckily it was re-opened and fallen branches were cleared away for hiking to resume. It was a public holiday in Korea on this day and so the park was full of families and visitors.

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At the top of Ulsanbawi! Very windy!

We arrived at the park early enough to beat the crowds. You pay a small entrance fee of The first course we explored was the hike up to Ulsan-bawi. The hike itself was steep, most of the course though takes you up seemingly never ending stairs! Once you reach the top the view of the East Sea is breathtaking and well worth the sweat of the climb. The total time taken to get up, enjoy the view and get back down took us around 4 hours.

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The second course we explored after lunch was Gwongeumseong Fortress. This was much easier as you take the cable car most of the way there. The view is not nearly as stunning as Ulsan-bawi but the feeling you get whilst standing on the rocks on the cliff face and looking down into the valley below makes your stomach drop.

Gangneung

From Sokcho we took a bus to Gangneung for the ferry port over to Ulleng-do (Ulleung Island). Due to high seas and wind warnings however this proved quote difficult and we were only able to get the ferry 2 days after arriving. In Gangneung itself there is not a whole lot to see. It is a quaint little city with various shopping centres and CGV cinema complex that does show English movies. We also took this opportunity to grab some iced tea along the seaside which is a popular destination for Korean travelers. While we were here there were celebrations happening with lots of fireworks being lit off by tourists all over the beach!

Ulleung-do

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Ulleungdo, the mysterious island!

From Gangneung you can get the ferry over to Ulleung-do. This cost us 55,ooo won one way (around AUD$65). While pricey to get across to, this island is unforgettable. This was the most challenging place we have visited as there was not a single other foreigner on the island and no one could speak any English!

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This place was such an off-the-beaten-track gem of a find! We loved it!

The first thing we were interested in doing here was the 984m hike up to Seonginbong peak. It was a fair hike up so take some lunch! The way up was a fantastic adventure. You can read about it on my guest post on Travel Away following the link Ulleung-do guest post. You get spectacular views of the gorgeous green forests and; in one observation deck area, a view all the way to the sea and of the valley below. Another great thing about Ulleung-do was the gorgeous coastal walking trail. You can see the way the old extinct volcano that was Ulleung-do many years ago shaped the island to what can be seen today.

Busan

Busan was the 2nd easiest city when it came to being an English speaking backpacker. It is located in the midst of the countries industrial area and fast expanding. The hostels here weren’t as fantastic as Seoul however with the staff being so relaxed they could scarely be found in some situations! I have to recommend a visit to Sushi Berry restaurant for dinner, the chef makes you fresh world class sushi rolls that are huge and extremely affordable!

We hiked (again I know, believe me I’m looking back like damn we did a lot of hiking, it is the country to do it in!) the fortress hike around the Beomeosa temple region which took us through one of the old gates connecting the old walls of the fortress. Up to the peak we found many cats who wanted our lunch! We also marvelled at the men at work building a new platform at the top. They transported the heavy wood panels up by carrying them on their backs a few at a time. One on its own was heavy enough! We tried to lift one ourselves, these guys were bloody strong.

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Jeju Island

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The view from top floor hotel room at Co-op City hotel.

The water surrounding Jeju is so crystal blue you will hardly want to leave the beach-side! Dubbed Korea’s own Hawaii, this was exactly why we splashed out here and stayed in the wonderful Co-op city hotel. A very new hotel with a gorgeous view overlooking Jeju’s popular beach; Hamdeok Beach. The buffest breakfast everyday was great! It did have some Western options which was welcomed! We walked along Seoubong Peak for stunning views over the ocean and even saw a pod of dolphins swimming and frolicking in the water. We also came across a beautiful horse in the paddock by the sea.

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If you like an adventure (and more hiking!) Hallasan National Park is home to Korea’s highest peak, Mt Hallasan. It is also called Mt Yeongjusan, which translates to “mountain high enough to pull the galaxy”. Yep, what a name, it was not easy! For once the easiest part for me was getting up but on the way down the gravity did something shocking to my knees.

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There are 3 sections of incline, which reminds me of Goldilocks and the 3 Bears. The first was pretty easy-going and enjoyable. The second section was getting a little tougher now but I still enjoyed seeing the sights. The final section is the rocky landscape and then a billion steps to the peak! While it wasn’t easy, it was super rewarding to reach the top and look out over Jeju. Make sure you pack food and plenty of water. Pack some snack food to exchange with other hikers on your way to the top! We were surprised when a man offered us a sweet Korean food to share, we gave him a banana in return!

While touring around South Korea had its challenges with language barriers and the weather stopping us from getting our ferries we had such a great time in the land of the mountains. Oh man my legs are done with hiking for the rest of my days!

Are you travelling to South Korea soon? Leave a comment below or flick us an email!

Happy travels!

Sam and Kirsten x

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