The cheapest way to leave Mongolia was to go via South Korea, we intend to go back to South Korea towards the end of our journey but we decided we may as well take a few days in Seoul to break up the flight.
While we were in Seoul we saw two very different sides to the city, the traditional side, which I am writing about here, and the quirky side, which will follow.
For our visit to South Korea, we were lucky enough to have a whole host of recommendations from our friends who were traveling there last year on their honeymoon. As I mentioned we were a bit more limited for time there so we didn’t manage to get to all of the places recommended. The first place we did make it to was the Changgyeonggung Palace.
What we didn’t realise before setting off is that Seoul has five palaces, so when we passed the first on the bus I started asking my husband if we were definitely going to the right place. As it turns out google maps didn’t fail us and we ended up outside Changgyeonggung Palace.
I believe Changgyeonggung is actually one of the more minor palaces that was intended for the queens and concubines to live in. It was subsequently where a few of kings were born and grew up. Later in life the palace was actually converted into a zoo by the occupying Japanese forces, however no animals remain today.
What we found instead a beautiful and striking palace complex, similar but completely distinct from what we had seen previously in China and Mongolia. All the buildings had very clean lines and everything seemed blocky but somehow in a very elegant way. It half reminds me of how dwarfish architecture is depicted in The Lord Of The Rings, but at the same time has a finesse to it that is not present in that depiction.
The various throne rooms were much more simple than those in the forbidden city, however they still were a clear symbol of power. I noticed as well that behind each throne was a similar depiction of a hilly landscape. I am not entirely sure on the significance of the landscape as we didn’t have a guide, but it must be relevent.
Because we didn’t have a guide we were basically relying on a small leaflet we picked up at the entrance and while it told us where certain queens had lived and certain kings had been born we didn’t have context, so to be honest we just enjoyed wandering around the palace complex, looking at the architecture and enjoying the scenery.
There was an interesting dynamic in some of the courtyards where instead of guttering they had shaped the tiles so that the water dripped in specific places, the courtyard had a walkway around it but the centre was lower and there was a drain in the centre. I remember from China that it was good Feng Shui to have water inside the home and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a similar belief in Korea.
There was a collection of a few weather measuring devices including a flag which basically acted as a wind sock and an intricate looking sun-dial.
We went for a walk through the gardens of the palace where we found a pretty pond that was actually two ponds, with the original much smaller and full of water lilies and the larger extension.
We found a path through some trees which was carpeted, which was slightly odd. The path lead us to the statue of a turtle which looked rather pleased with itself (we actually noticed that it seemed to be a theme of Korean animal statues to look pleased with themselves). The turtle was marking a taesil which is the chamber in which the placenta and umbilical cords of royal children were stored. Maybe that is why the turtle looked so happy.
That afternoon we visited the neighbouring palace of Changdeokgung, which was on a grander scale, however I believe it is still not the main palace. Changdeokgung Palace was essentially a meeting place for the king to meet the government, although there were some living quarters present and even an entire wing which was built specifically for one of the kings and his consort.
Again we were in a similar position of not having much information so we enjoyed the architecture and gardens. We were able to see into more of the rooms, which was interesting and the gardens had more of a terraced feel than the previous palace.
We did not go to the secret garden which lies between the two palaces as it was only possible to go on a tour and we had timed our visit badly so that we had missed all the English-speaking tours for the day.
In both palaces we saw Koreans (and actually a few westerners too) in their national dress, called the hanbok. I may have taken a few sneaky photos of them with my zoom. The hanbok, is similar to the kilt in a lot of ways, it is more likely to be rented than bought and it is worn for special occasions like weddings or graduations (or again like the kilt if you are a foreigner and trying to appropriate local culture). We saw many rental shops where you could rent hanboks around Seoul and some places even had discounts for those wearing them.
I was unsure whether to include our Korean barbecue in this blog or not, but in the end it is traditional so I decided to go ahead. I don’t think I could imagine anything more different from the Mongolian barbecue I featured in Living With The Nomads than our experience at an all you can eat Korean barbecue. I think the only similarity was that it involved meat.
Our original plan was to go to an all you can eat Korean barbecue that I had seen featured on a travel vlog, however that place had been shut down since the vlog. We wandered around the area a bit and found a different all you can eat place.
Basically we paid 10,000 won each (about £6-7) and were shown to a table with a grill plate in the centre, in the middle of the grill plate was a pot which was topped up with soup for us and there was an extractor fan over each table as well. We were presented with a board which had beef and pork belly on it as well as a metal dish with spicy bean sprouts on it which were placed on the grill plate.
You had to pay for drinks but could get free water and there was a side dish bar where you could help yourself to kimchi, salads and sauces, or you could order things like rice, but that carried an extra charge.
We basically watched what people around us were doing and then copied them. There were some scissors on the table which we worked out were actually there to cut the meat up and we saw others heating the kimchi on the same dish as where the bean sprouts were.
I wasn’t a big fan of the pork belly, but the beef was delicious, especially with one of the sauces, I had never come across that type of sauce before and it wasn’t labeled so I still have no idea what it was except that it tasted beautiful. I also have to admit that I am not a fan of kimchi, I am not the biggest fan of spicy anyway and that together with the sourness of kimchee means it is not one of my prefered dishes.
Once our platter of meat was empty we simply went up to the meat counter and got it refilled, we got beef only the second time around and after that we had had our fill, but you could easily keep going. There was no additional charge unless you took more meat and then didn’t eat it, which I think was incredibly sensible.
It was a really fun and tasty experience, even if my husband ended up doing most of the cooking, I enjoyed watching it being cooked and very much enjoyed eating it.
Having seen where the traditional living spaces of the kings and queens we decided to also visit the Hanoks, these were similar to the Hutongs in my Beijing From Many Perspectives blog, however in the case of South Korea these seem to be pretty affluent areas. As these were residential areas and this time we were not on a tour we found some rules that had to be observed in the area. These were mostly common sense like not making a racket and not sneakily taking photos of people.
We followed a recommended route through the Hanock area which first took us past some more modern shops which I intend to cover in my next blog but soon took us up and away to the residential area.
We were keeping an eye out at the same time for a tea museum which was recommended by the same friend who recommended the palaces and it actually didn’t take very long to find as it was near the beginning of the recommended route.
When we went into the tea museum, however we found that it was less of a museum and more of a tea house with some quirky antique collections and not all of them related to tea. We weren’t complaining though, the day had been very hot and this gave us the opportunity to sit in an air-conditioned room and drink some delicious iced tea. The view wasn’t half bad either.
After drinking our tea we had a wander around the gardens of the tea museum and toward the exit we had to go through a gift shop. There were a few interesting bits and bobs in the shop but there was also an extremely friendly lady there who I think wanted to practice her English with us. She seemed fascinated by the Scottish independence referendum.
We continued to wonder finding more and more interesting architecture until we found one house which was open to the public so we decided to go in.
It turned out to be a museum of Kokdu which are wooden figures traditionally used on funeral biers. It was an interesting and very colourful exhibition, showing a very different side to a funeral than we are used to.
It also gave us the chance to have a peak inside a traditional Hanok house, which was interesting in of itself.
There was a giant inflatable kokdu in the courtyard of the house which could have easily fit into the quirky blog, but since I was talking about this museum in this blog I may as well show it in here.
The last point of interest, other than just wandering through the beautiful streets, was a traditional knot tying workshop, where they basically had all kinds of intricate knots making things from bracelets to christmas decorations and even large ones used in traditional dress.
It has actually been harder than expected to split this blog as so many fit into both categories, this is also the case for our final activity which was going to Kwangjong market. If we (or my husband at least) had tried the live octopus or penis fish (yes that is its name), which are traditional foods for male virility I would have certainly put this in the quirky blog. However we went for the slightly less scary options of Soondae and Mung bean Pancakes.
Soondae I had actually learned about in my Korean language guide from world nomads, it is basically a sausage made of pigs blood, with noodles and vegetables in it. I expected it to taste something similar to black pudding from home, but it was actually a lot more bland which is surprising for a country so fond of spice.
Mung bean Pancakes we were recommended by the same friend who recomended the palace, and we were not disappointed, they were delicious and we washed them down with some local rice wine.
The traditions of Korea are so quirky it must leave you wondering what will be in the quirky blog.
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