Sights of South Korea, part 2

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seafood at Busan's Jagalchi fish market

seafood at Busan’s Jagalchi fish market

The KTX express train was rolling into Busan station, a very swift and comfortable 2 hrs 15 minutes’ ride from Seoul. It was early evening and after my somewhat trying day visiting the DMZ, the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea, I was relieved to be back in a big city, full of ordinary people and bright lights, not soldiers and landmines.

South Korea’s second city and largest port was buzzing when I arrived at Bay 101 yacht club, for dinner with a view at Fingers & Chat – Koreans do so love slightly nonsensical names in English. This informal fish & chips place overlooks the Busan skyline, with modern skyscrapers lining the waterfront and it’s one of several restaurants within the complex. On a Friday night it was positively heaving with happy diners, tucking into that long-time UK favourite, while listening to the tunes of a live, and rather raucous, jazz band.

The day’s border hardships had left me dead on my feet and I was exceedingly grateful to leave said band behind, after a substantial dinner, to collapse in a heap at my hotel, but I only managed to sneak in some five hours before it was “up and at ‘em” again. A visit to the city’s famous fish market, Jagalchi, beckoned. The country’s largest fish and seafood market, Jagalchi does a roaring trade in the early morning and most of the traders are, perhaps surprisingly, older women. It’s a great place to just amble round, taking in the sights of the sea, all on display in large vats, fish tanks and buckets. It’s also good for munching a seafood snack or two, but it was a bit early for second breakfast, so I abstained, instead checking out the myriad stalls, some selling creatures I’d never seen before and, to my knowledge, never tasted.

part of the UN Cemetery, Busan

part of the UN Cemetery, Busan

After the hustle and bustle of the market, my next stop was something of a serene shock. The peaceful UN Memorial Cemetery, another of Busan’s key sights, honours the soldiers of 16 nations killed in the Korean War 1950-53. The memorial hall, a beautiful building in itself, has plenty of information about the war and its aftermath and the entire visit was sobering, if very interesting. The well-tended cemetery has a UK section with a British Commonwealth Monument, as well as monuments to Turkish, Greek and Australian fighters.

Next up on my agenda was to sample some traditional Joseon dynasty royal cuisine at countryside inn Surime, near Gyeongju, a former royal capital northeast of Busan. The 12-course lunch included everything from sweet pumpkin porridge and wild eel, to steamed bamboo and mushroom hotpot. Foodie heaven in a gorgeous setting, akin to a rambling Korean farmhouse, surrounded by rolling hills and trees in their bright autumn finery. Lunch was followed by a gentle stroll around Bulgoksa Temple, a Buddhist temple, originally from the 8th century, greatly restored in more recent times.

the autumn colours of Bulgoksa temple

the autumn colours of Bulgoksa temple

The temple, on the UNESCO Heritage list since 1995, sits on the slopes of Toham Mountain, and the gentle uphill walk along the leafy pathways provided such a riot of splendid autumn colours, I felt as though an artist had set the trees ablaze, taking me on a tour from soft mauve to deep magenta. The season, if not overshadowing the treasures of the many temple buildings, certainly enhanced them, adding a celebratory air to the stone pagodas, Buddha statues and ornate bridges in the surroundings. The afternoon was spent very peacefully, exploring the many different nooks and crannies of temple structures, and roaming the pristine paths amidst Korean families and couples, some in traditional dress adding to the festive feel.

That evening I returned to Seoul where I’d started my journey only four days ago, although it felt like weeks had gone by, I’d packed in so many interesting places and sights. Before returning to the UK, my trip had one more exciting stop in store, the walled city and fortress of Suwon. Suwon is only about an hour directly south of Seoul and again I was treated to gorgeous sunshine and fantastic colour displays as I wandered the city walls, all open to the public. Hwaseong fortress, of which the walls form part, stretches over 5,5 km and was constructed during the late 18th century. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Four gates; north, south, east and west, are some of the highlights, but there are all of 48 original structures along the walls to admire, including pavilions, sentry posts, watch towers and a beacon tower.

Suwon

Suwon

No less impressive, but slightly less widespread, is Suwon royal palace, Hwaseong Haenggung. Boasting 576 chambers, it’s the largest palace in the country and there are daily displays of Korean traditional martial arts in the courtyard. Returning to Seoul in the late afternoon for a final evening exploring the area of Myeong-dong near my hotel, I first took a stroll around one of Seoul’s busy markets, Namdaemun, still teeming with shoppers and browsers in the early evening. Myeong-dong is great for an evening out as the pedestrianised streets fill up with stalls selling all manner of things from tasty nibbles to electronic goods and funky pjs.

From fantastic food and fabulous temples to stark reminders of the Korean War and current peace efforts, this, my fourth visit to South Korea had provided an interesting overview of this fascinating nation; a modern country in touch with its ancient past.

For further information about Korea, click here  or go to www.gokorea.co.uk.

Images and story © Anna Maria Espsäter

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