The Korean Quest

August 14, 2011

On August 15, South Korea celebrates Independence Day along with India. Like India, Korea also has a rich history of more than 2000 years. And almost like India, Korea was also invaded by outsiders. Being one of the populous countries, again like India, South Korea has got a notorious neighbour North Korea (like Pakistan in our side). Though South Korea got freedom in the 1940s, almost the same time as India, and though it shares many social and historical similarities with India, it is an advanced country today, unlike India.

I was very keen to know how this kind of progress was made. Before going to South Korea, my Korean connection was limited to technology-based products such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG. We landed in Incheon airport which is the primary airport serving the Seoul national capital area, and one of the largest and busiest airports in the world. Within minutes of entering the airport, I could guess why this airport has been consecutively rated as the best in the world. The airport has a golf course, spa, private sleeping rooms, ice skating rink, a casino and indoor gardens. Seoul is located 70 km away from the Incheon airport and it takes almost an hour to reach the city. My hotel Sheraton Walker hill was on the eastern part of Seoul which gave me an opportunity to pass through the city.

South Korean Peninsula is roughly 1000 km long and 216 km wide at its narrowest point. South Korea is noted for its population density, which is 487 per square kilometre, more than 10 times the global average. The crowded streets were quite familiar to me as I am from India! It was surprising to know that around 50 percent population did not follow any religion. Buddhism and Christianity are the other major religions which roughly constitute around 25 percent each.

The Seoul Tower

The Royal Tomb

The Olympic Stadium

Korean Buddhist Temple

Gyeanghoeru Palace Hall

Yongsan Electronic Market

View of the City

Bombed Train at Imjingak

The place where I stayed, the capital of South Korea, Seoul is in the northwest side of South Korea and has a population of around 10 million in a radius of approximately 15 km, roughly bisected into northern and southern halves by the Han River. On the banks of Han River, one can find numerous gardens, sports and games courts where people can come and spend their weekends. Across the Han River the modern city of Southern Seoul is dominated by Korea's World Trade Centre, and the Coex Mall, a shopper's delight. The island, Yeouido, in the middle of the Han River is densely packed with high-rise buildings; this is also the base for the Korean National Assembly.

According to Korean legend, the god-king Tangun founded the Korean nation in BC 2333. Various dynasties like Silla, Koguryo, Paekche and Choson ruled Korea until the Japanese captured in 1910. Japanese left the country after World War II in 1945. Surprisingly India and South Korea share the same date of independence - August 15. Though there was independence, armed fighting started between southern and northern part of Korea. However, with the help of UN forces, South Korea again gained hold of the land it had lost during the war. Since then there was no looking back for South Korea, becoming one of the world's fastest growing economies during early 1960s to the late 1990s. South Korea is still one of the fastest growing developed countries in the 2000s.

Koreans believe that the things that set them the most apart from other Asian cultures are their cuisine, their language and their hangul script. Learning to read Korean language is fairly easy compared to speaking. But I could manage to learn some of the simple phrases such as Annyong haseyo? (Good morning.), Ne (Yes), Aniyo (No) and Kamsahamnida (Thank you).

Travelling in South Korea's public transport is a child’s play. Apart from buses and taxis, there is a beautiful subway train network which runs  underground. With more than 8 million passengers per day, Seoul has one of the busiest subway systems in the world. In Seoul, you can visit most places by using the subway. There are as low as three levels of railway networks below ground level, constructed when the buildings were already built on grade level. Apart from electronically guided touch-screen information kiosks, all the railway stations were like shopping malls. There's usually a subway stop within a ten-minute walk in any direction. One can use Tmoney cards which are available at railway stations, for travelling in the subway trains here. Alternatively one can use normal tickets which are sold through automatic vending machines, which also refund balance money. The base charge for a 10 km travel is W1000 (around Rs 45). One has to carry subway train network map while travelling here as one may have to change the lanes to reach one's destination.

People are very friendly and they will help those who are stuck despite not knowing English. The subway journeys are quite silent as people who travel are busy viewing their favourite baseball match in their portable televisions which is similar to mobile phones. If you want to hit most of Seoul's major attractions but aren't keen on traversing the city by taxi or subway, then there are Hop in and Hop off buses for you.

Korea is fairly expensive compared to most Asian countries, but is a little cheaper compared to other modern developed countries such as Japan and most Western countries. There are various shopping destinations at Seoul including markets at Namdaemun, Insadong, Myeongdong and, Dongdaemon. However, I liked expat friendly Itaewon, which is located near main US Army base. Itaewon is choc-a-bloc with bars, clubs, restaurants and shops selling everything from reproduction Korean furniture and tailored suits to jewellery and Korean pottery. If you feel peckish, take the opportunity to graze at the food stalls and hotels from all around the world. I could locate three to four Indian restaurants at Itaewon where the charge for a dinner was awhopping Rs 1500.

Youngman Electronics Market and techno mart are famous electronic retail areas in Seoul. Youngman comprises over 20 buildings, houses 5,000 stores that sell appliances, stereos, computers and peripherals, office equipment, telephones, lighting equipment, electronic games and software, videos and CD's. A variety of electronic components for constructing computers and other items can also be found. If you are a good bargainer, you can get Korean products at 50% rate than outside. Coex Mall is the largest underground Mall in Asia. Aquarium lovers must visit Coex Mall which is situated at centre of Seoul near world trade centre.

There are numerous stadiums in and around Seoul which were constructed for Asian Games and Olympic games. Olympic Games of 1988 was when Koreans got the confidence that they can make it big in world map. Another big event was World Cup football of 2002, during which South Korea (co-hosted along with Japan) became the first Asian Country to host football world cup. South Korea managed to enter semi-finals in this tournament.

Seoul Tower or Namsan tower is a communication and observation tower located in Namsan Mountain. Iconic Seoul Tower offers spectacular 360 degree views of the city and surrounding countryside. Built in 1969, and opened to the public in 1980, the tower has been a symbol of Seoul and measures 236.7 m (777 ft) in height (from the base). Visitors can ride the Namsan cable car up the mountain, and then walk to the tower. There is a revolving restaurant which rotates at a rate of one revolution every 48 minutes.

Similar to India, Korea was also ruled by many kingdoms and hence palaces here are plenty. Gyeongbok Palace (palace of happiness) which is the largest of the palaces was constructed in 1394 by the Joseon Dynasty and reconstructed in 1867. Nearly destroyed by the Japanese during invasion in the early 20th century, the palace complex is slowly being restored to its original form. Unlike Indian palaces, the palaces in Korea have many small buildings inside the palace block which house the king, queen, crown prince and other relatives of the royal family. Elevated banquet hall called gyeanghoeru, situated at the centre of a pool was really marvellous.

In Seoul, one can find numerous daily tours. One such famous place to visit was bordering Demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. After civil war in 1953, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was established as a cease-fire agreement with a boundary area of 2 km between North and South Korea. This Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is probably the only unique area without any troops around as the other area separating the two is the most heavily armed in the world. In this zone, there are four tunnels dug by North Korea to invade South Korea. I had an opportunity to visit thethird Tunnel, which was discovered in 1978. This tunnel is around 1.7 km long, 2 m high, 2 m wide and about 73m below ground. One had to walk down around 750 m deep down to reach this tunnel. There are blockades inside the tunnel which has a pressurised water tank to sweep the tunnel in case anyone tries to open blockade.

Enroute DMZ, we stopped at a place called Imjingak, where the "Bridge of Freedom" lies. The Freedom Bridge is a former railroad bridge which was used by repatriated Prisoners of war returning from the north. There were photographs of war all around which depicted the pain of separation and pain of war. People here still believe that one day both parts of Korea will unite and peace will prevail. Continuing DMZ tour, Dora observatory was our next stop where one can peep into North Korean area through binoculars. One can look into long flagposts stationed in North Korean border.

Ulsan is the industrial powerhouse of South Korea, forming the heart of the Ulsan Industrial District, which is home to the world's largest automobile assembly plant operated by Hyundai Motor, the world's largest shipyard operated by Hyundai Heavy Industries and the world's third largest oil refinery owned by SK Energy. We had an opportunity to visit Hyundai Motor, Hyundai ship building and SK refinery complex. The mammoth-sized Hyundai Motor- Ulsan complex sits on 1,200 acres and this is Hyundai Motor’s main production plant, comprising five independent plants. It employs over 34,000 workers capable of producing 5,600 vehicles daily. The plant also has its own port where up to three 42,000 ton ships can anchor at the same time. The plant is the birthplace of the Korean automobile industry and is a self-contained facility that operates its own fire station, hospital and security vehicles. Hyundai Motor, South Korea’s largest automaker, sold 659,565 cars in the Korean domestic market in 2010, reaching a market share of about 45 percent. Outside Korea, the company sold about 2.9 million cars in 2010 in over 186 countries. Daily two ships which carry around 5000 to 7000 vehicles are loaded here for export purpose.

Hyundai Heavy Industries ship building division is world’s largest ship builder which commands more than 15% share in world market. The facility has nine large dry docks with seven goliath sized cranes. Yearly Hyundai Heavy Industries build more than 100 ships at this facility. One ship building from scratch takes around eight months. A small museum has been maintained in fond remembrances of Chung-Ju-Yung in this plant. All personal belongings of their founder along with his story of growth are maintained here.

Korea tour is incomplete without a visit to Gyeongju. Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla, which houses a vast number of archaeological sites and cultural properties of those periods. Gyeongju is like weekend destination for most of the Koreans. Apart from temples and monuments, there are theme parks which entertain younger generation. The city has a lot of monuments that are witness to the evolving of Korean Buddhism. One such important temple we visited was Bulguksa along with Seokgurum. Pagoda temple with beautiful Buddha statue was eye-catching. Lot of Indian influences were seen in temple architecture and methodology of worship. Every time the guides mentioned the name of King Ashoka of India, we were getting goosebumps. We could see huge bells at Seokgurum with Indian gods like Krishna sculpted on them. One more important attraction at this place are the royal tombs. There are around 150 tombs in and around Gyeongju. The tombs are in a mud hill shaped mounds under which along with the bodies of royal decedents along with their arms, crown, belongings and even horse are buried. Three of such tombs were opened by archaeologists recently and one has been kept for public display.

From Gyeongju to Seoul was a memorable journey as we travelled by one of the fastest trains in the world, KTX. The train runs at speeds above 300km/hr. The train has around 900 passenger seats with video/audio system, intercom, passenger information facilities provided in passenger compartments, drink vending machines, snack vending machines, etc. The trains are pressure-sealed to reduce passenger discomfort from pressure variations during tunnel passages. It took just around 2 hours for travelling around 350 km with five stops enroute.

Finally, after staying for fifteen days in South Korea, it was time to say goodbye to thewonderful world city. We were happy not because we were coming home, instead were happy because we had an opportunity to see a developed country. Koreans impressed us with their sincerity, sense of time and hospitality. Though there are very few English speaking Koreans and very few vegetarian restaurants, they stiill conquered our hearts. With the question whether we Indians could ever catch up with Korea in development and sincerity, we embarked into the long journey from Incheon to Bangalore.

Sudheer Pai
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Comment on this article

  • Ramprabhu, Bangalore

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    Nice article! Keep posting more.

  • Mario Saldanha, Bajpe / Mumbai

    Tue, Aug 16 2011

    Nice detailed article. I was impressed with the discipline of the people of Korea, thats what has helped them get to where their country is today!
    To anyone planning a visit t0 SEOUL I would also recommend a visit to the Cheongye-chun stream in the heart of Seoul city - the transformation is amazing. All our netas and corporators going on those never missed foreign jaunts would do well to visit SEOUL and see how public money is well spent on all those parks and people-friendly facilities on the banks of the Han river!
    My most pleasant memory is of an ordinary taxi driver who on hearing my 'from India' in reply to his "where u from?" told me how he learnt abount India's caste system and names in school, how he admired
    Mahatma Gandhi and how he would one day visit India to go to the holy Buddhist shrines.
    My first day in Korea brought me the surprise that they addressed Mother and father as - "Omma" and "Appa"!!
    Though an expensive country, would strongly recommend a visit to this wonderful country - South Korea.
    And may the two Koreas be reunited soon.

  • babbish,

    Mon, Aug 15 2011

    Nice write up Sudheer! This article will be of great help to those planning a visit.

  • Chris in South Korea, Seoul

    Sun, Aug 14 2011

    Looks like you had a wonderful time! As an English-speaking person living in the Seoul area, I can echo the sentiments - there's far more to see than a 15-day trip can offer. Even after having seen a new place / event / performance every week for the past three years, there's *still* more to see. If you're interested in coming to Korea, my website offers posts on travel and life in Korea. :) Would love to check out India in the near future!

  • Joyer ( Rudolph) Noronha, Kinnigoli

    Sun, Aug 14 2011

    Thanks Mr Sudheer for informative write up.

    Your photography is excellent, I loved the bombed train and all the information that you have packed in, in this lovely article.

    Today to the world, there is no cold war. The two ideologies that had started the cold war have begun to shake hands for mutual economic gains. But , the Koreans still pay the price. Koreans on the northern side live in extreme poverty and in shameful lack of freedom and dignity.

    Hope to see the two Koreas United
    and also hope to see more such nice articles and stunning snaps from you.

    (To M/s Daiji: Sir this article should be in exclusive section and not in news)

  • Antony Vas, Chikmagalur / Abu Dhabi.

    Sat, Aug 13 2011

    Nice Article Mr. Sudheer Pai. I was there in Korea for a week, last 2 years back. Its a nice experience to visit Korea. I could visit Everland fun Resort, Lotte World Shopping and Entertainment centre, Hyundai 15 Floor Shopping Complex, North and South Seoul tour, Seoul Tower, Boat ride dinner and few more things. Expensive City. It was little easy for me to deal with people, as i can read, write and speak Korean. Incheon Airport is one of the best airport i have seen, Dubai International Terminal 3 Airport is just a duplicate of Incheon Airport. Never to miss saying that, every 300 to 400 meters you can find a church in Seoul. I was resided in Bucheon City. A pleasure to read your article. Thanks. Happy Independence Day.

  • Vasant Raj, Udupi / Abudhabi.

    Sat, Aug 13 2011

    Very interesting, specially the bombed Train..

  • Johnson, Suratkal

    Sat, Aug 13 2011

    Interesting info Sudeer mam. WISH YOU HAPPY INDEPENDANCE DAY.

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