I open at the close: Seoul, Korea

My seven-month adventure ended nearly 18 months ago – but now that I am finding some time to actually go through the thousands of pictures I took in some detail, I feel increasingly compelled to actually finish off my blog that I kept so faithfully for most of the journey. Until the last few weeks, that is – when the realities of heading home started to crash home and blogging was replaced with job applications.

I spent about a third of my 4 weeks in Korea in Busan, and wrote about it here. I stayed with my friend Dan, who was teaching English there at the time, which made the transition into this wildly unfamiliar country a lot easier. It was with a little bit of trepidation, therefore, that I headed to Seoul, the very final stop of a 210-day odyssey.

Fortunately, my trepidation was unfounded. I’d booked myself into a dorm at Mr Kim’s guesthouse for the miraculous price of just £6 a night and managed to find it on just the second attempt. Like Tokyo, Seoul is a warren of ever smaller nameless alleyways once you leave the main roads, so I was fairly pleased with my navigation efforts. Through a happy coincidence, I was also close to Hongdae, the entertainment district surrounding Hongik University. I spent my days and evenings wandering the city relatively aimlessly, looking to get a feel for it without just sticking to the main attractions.

That said, I did visit the standard attractions, as well – and my little photo essay below will aim to introduce a few of them.

Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea - Changing of the Guards

Here, I arrived at Gyeongbokgung Palace – Seoul’s equivalent of Buckingham Palace – just in time for the Changing of the Guard. I quite like this far-Eastern version – much colourful than the London counterpart!

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Changing of the Guards

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Changing of the Guards

MMM

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Changing of the Guards

The whole event seemed more approachable, as well – rather than taking place behind thick wrought-iron gates and fences, the public simply clears the required space around the courtyard. That said, I’m not sure I’d want to push my luck getting in the way of these guys, fanciful uniforms or no…

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Changing of the GuardsGyeongbokgung Palace - Changing of the Guards

MMM

Gyeongbokgung Palace - Changing of the Guards

Musical accompaniment.

On the other end of the spectrum, I also visited a more modern staple of Korean culture. E-sports tournaments draw a considerable – admittedly mostly male – audience in Korea, and the top players earn millions. Essentially, gaming is on the same level as professional sports – or other professional sports, I should say. On this occasion, I watched a game of League of Legends. The teams are arranged on either side of the audience in lit-up glass boxes, with teams of Korean and English-speaking commentators prominent on stage.

e-sports tournament, Seoul, Korea

League of Legends on the big screen. The audience was loving it, and there was some serious cheering!

e-sports tournament, Seoul, Korea

A cheeky picture with the hostess – no points to her for the dressing-up effort, but I guess that’s not really the point here. My hoverhand is because I wasn’t really sure what the etiquette is…

Finally, Dan and I made the obligatory “pilgrimage” to the border with North Korea, just a few miles north of Seoul. Tours of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) are a dime a dozen, but still extremely worthwhile. Where else can you simply wander into what is technically still a war zone?

Demilitarized Zone, South Korea / North Korea

Contrasts in life…

Demilitarized Zone, South Korea / North Korea

…near the DMZ.

It’s a weird place – the South Korean side is busy with tourists, and even North Korean tours feature their side of the DMZ. There are also signs that South Korea is simply waiting for the conflict to end, such as a train station at the border that boldly announces that the next stop on the line will – one day – be Pyongyang.

Demilitarized Zone, South Korea / North Korea

One day…

North Korea dug several tunnels in its attempts to invade the South over the years, aiming for Seoul. Some of these simply failed, while South Korea discovered others. One of these is now accessible for tourists – so much so that there is even a train from ground level for anyone too lazy or frail to walk down the long, sloping corridor. It’s a slightly ghostly place – hard to imagine being the North Korean soldiers blasting their way through the rock, hoping against hope to avoid discovery…

Demilitarised Zone South Korea / North Korea

All aboard for a 30-second ride!

Demilitarized Zone, South Korea / North Korea

Dan is 6’5” – he struggled in this tunnel made for people of average North Korean height in the early 80s!

Demilitarized Zone, South Korea / North Korea

This is the underground border to North Korea. Photographs aren’t allowed here, so I snuck this one with my little camera – across from the viewing window is a full-on North Korean military installation.

Demilitarized Zone, South Korea / North Korea

Above ground, too, there are plenty of reminders that despite the bustling nature of the place, the conflict is far from over.

In hindsight, I’m annoyed with myself for not making more of an effort to explore Seoul properly in the weeks I had there. But once home was within reach, once my thoughts had turned from the moment to the immediate future and beyond, it became ever harder to motivate myself to go and wander. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to rectify this mistake sometime sooner rather than later!

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