Discovering South Korea with a private guide


by Marcia Brandes, Atlanta, GA

I had been saving up Delta frequent-flyer miles for years, hoping to use them for a long flight in first or business class. My destination depended, in part, on where the airline flew and what seats were open.
Delta offered tickets to New Zealand through their partner Korean Air. Traveling almost halfway around the world: that looked like a good use for 300,000 Sky Miles, so I booked a trip for my husband, Steve, and myself leaving Oct. 29, 2005.

The only catch in flying Delta to New Zealand was that I had to change planes in Seoul. Now, South Korea is not exactly a way point on the shortest route from Atlanta to Auckland. I was adding nine hours to our journey in order to fly business class; clearly, the thing to do was to schedule a stopover in Seoul. And if we were going to be in South Korea anyway, why not see some of the country?

Arranging a visit
At first I thought we would merely arrange a full-day tour in Seoul, but as I looked online for packaged tours I was surprised to find absolutely nothing — well, nothing in English, anyway. I’ve known many people who’ve traveled to Seoul on business, but this was the first country I had wanted to visit that seemed to have no infrastructure for tourists. As it turned out, I discovered that South Korea is heavily touristed — just not by Westerners.
Finally I came upon the website of a guide who specializes in private tours in South Korea. The website, www.uniquetour-korea.com, showed a wide variety of interesting and beautiful attractions.

J.J. Chung offered his services as guide and driver for $250 a day. The site showed his picture, a picture of his vehicle, his excellent driving record, a few suggested tours and itineraries, and photographs of his clients and their various destinations.

After checking his references, which he e-mailed to me, I decided to book a week’s tour of South Korea. (The company, Unique Tour Korea, can also be contacted by fax [+82 42 471 3373] or by writing to 105-1603 Yeolmae Maeul, 853 Jijok-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon, Korea.)

J.J. was easy to communicate with via e-mail and occasionally via telephone. He spoke excellent English and was happy to plan an itinerary that would suit our tastes.

I was anxious to get away from commercial Seoul and visit the countryside, particularly the national parks. Together we worked up an ambitious itinerary that included mountain hiking and visits to Buddhist temples, seaside markets, traditional villages, historic sites and important museums.

A few surprises
South Korea was a surprise in almost every respect. It was very modern, not just in Seoul but throughout the country. Our guide’s cell phone worked everywhere — on top of mountains, in the valleys and in the most remote parts of the country. And every time he used his credit card, his phone rang immediately with an automatic text message to tell him of the transaction! They must have almost eliminated credit card fraud in South Korea with that little trick.

Over the years I have learned that some things we take for granted at home are not available in other countries, but I was pleasantly surprised to find handicapped parking spaces, ramps and bathrooms in all the main scenic areas and other public places, and there were travelers in wheelchairs at several of the venues we visited.
Smoking was not nearly as prevalent as I had imagined; in fact, most of the restaurants were smoke-free.
I was surprised to see very few bicycles or motorcycles; everyone seemed to travel by car, with the cars running on either LPG (liquid petroleum gas) or diesel.

The highway system in South Korea is excellent. The roads are interstate quality, with frequent travel plazas. Road signs display Korean characters as well as Roman letters. There is a central phone number to call to get information on road construction, accidents, congestion, etc.

The “tech war” was in full swing, with the highways’ speed-control cameras, posted at frequent intervals, pitted against our guide’s GPS navigation system, which warned him as we approached each camera.

Every hotel/motel that we visited had Internet access. The less-expensive ones had a free-use computer in the lobby, while many of the nicer places had computers in each room. We were able to check e-mail every night and keep our family up to date on our travels.

Our hotels were not expensive — the most we paid was $56 a night — because J.J. recommended small hotels that cater to Korean businessmen, not Westerners (at Western prices).

Local interaction
Korea also surprised us with its beauty. The weather was perfect — in the 60s with crystal-blue skies and enough evening chill to remind us that it was fall. Seventy percent of the terrain is mountainous, and most of the Buddhist temples are situated in lovely mountain settings.

Fall is undoubtedly the very best time to visit if you love the mountains. Maples of bright red, clear orange and golden yellow filled the hillsides and lined the roads. Fluorescent yellow ginkgos carpeted the roadways. I have never seen such extravagant fall colors.

South Korea has an excellent network of national parks, and tourist buses were everywhere. But in the first five days we were there we saw only five other Westerners. Most visitors had come from other Asian countries or South Korea itself.

Every historical site we visited was inundated with busloads of schoolchildren, all eager to try out their fledgling English on the only Westerners in sight. As soon as one said “Hello,” they all cried out any English phrase they knew: “Hello!” “How are you?” “I love you.”

Whenever they asked us where we were from, we replied, “Atlanta, Georgia,” only to be greeted by giggles and laughter. Finally we asked our guide what was so funny about our hometown and learned that “Georgia” sounds very much like a Korean slang expression for the male sex organ. From then on, we said “USA” when asked that question.

Venturing out
On our first night in Korea, J.J. had booked us a room at the Jongnowon Motel (phone 822 763 4249, www. jongnowon.com) in Seoul. A popular place with backpackers at $35 a night, it was certainly a bargain, but it was a little more basic than we would have preferred. Breakfast was included in this modest price — in a tiny cook-it-yourself kitchen — so we started our tour of exotic Korea with peanut butter-and-jelly toast for me and fried eggs for Steve.

As J.J. drove us out of the city toward our first national park, Mt. Daedunsan, we saw mile after mile of highrise apartment buildings. We were surprised to pass a sign labeled “Edinburgh Country Club.” Apparently, golf is a very popular sport in Korea, but, with so little flat land, the driving ranges are fitted with giant green nets to catch the golf balls.

South Korea is 13 hours ahead of the eastern U.S., and I had heard that this is a difficult adjustment for travelers to make. However, I slept well the first night, so I really didn’t expect to experience any significant jet lag.
I usually find my excitement produces enough adrenaline to keep me going, but imagine my surprise when I started to climb the trail up Mt. Daedunsan and found that I couldn’t go 10 steps without resting. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. The elevation wasn’t that high, less than 3,000 feet.

We had to abandon our plans to hike up and instead took the cable car most of the way. After that, we crossed a swinging bridge and climbed a steep stairway to get to the top for a spectacular view over the countryside.

The food
Mt. Daedunsan gave us our first introduction to a variety of Korean foods. Vendors selling snacks of roasted silkworms and fried locusts lined the paths. The silkworms had a very distinctive smell which I did not find at all pleasant. As much as I dislike insects crawling around on me, I think I prefer that to eating them.
Another popular snack, dried seaweed, tasted very salty and very fishy.

I don’t want to be misleading, though. For the most part, the food we ate was excellent. I had been concerned that everything would be too spicy, but having a native guide made all the difference. He steered us to small restaurants that offered local dishes and pointed out which ones were very hot so we could avoid them.
J.J. knew the best places to eat in the towns and parks we visited and we were able to sample a variety of tastes. Restaurants in Korea do not offer a wide menu selection; rather, each specializes in a certain type of dish: noodles, fried chicken, barbecue, etc.

In Korea, “barbecue” is a cook-it-yourself affair where you sear your meat on the grill at your table, then wrap it in large leaves and anoint it with various condiments, including gimchee (kimchee), bean paste and pickled radishes. We tried pork, beef and duck prepared this way. The leaves ranged from lettuce to a variety of plants with which I was not familiar.

Meal prices were quite reasonable, usually $8-$10 for a good dinner. We did drink beer rather than wine, as wine was sold only by the bottle and was very expensive.

In Seoul, we had wonderful dumplings filled with pork at Bukchon Noodles (84 Sogyeok-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul; phone +82 2 739 6339). A large plate with enough for two cost only $5. Twice we ate at little restaurants that specialized in fried chicken and beer; that’s all they served. The chicken was excellent although cut up quite differently from the way we cut up a chicken.

We had succulent thin-sliced beef at the Manna Restaurant in Daejeon City (552-9 Bongmyeong-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon; phone +82 42 825 2001), one of the few places where we sat on chairs at a table rather than on mats at a low table, as we did in the smaller neighborhood restaurants. One of the best places we ate was in Gyeongju at the Hanshik Buffet (875 Yonggang-dong, Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do; phone +82 54 775 1617). Not only was the price a mere $6 for all we could eat, but we could see what we were getting and serve ourselves accordingly.

One thing I never did get used to was the Korean habit of eating exactly the same thing for breakfast as for any other meal. Fortunately, bakeries from the chain called Paris Baguette were ubiquitous, and Steve and I sampled a variety of French pastries every morning while our guide enjoyed his rice and gimchee. We could get a great breakfast for $2.50 each — try that in Paris sometime!

Several times I foraged at a fruit stand for my lunch, savoring the delicious Korean pears while Steve and J.J. slurped down bowls of noodles.

Temple visits
Our next spectacular national park was Mt. Naejangsan, where a tunnel of red maple trees lined the road. The park was full of Korean visitors admiring the foliage, the colors of which were even more exuberant than those at Mt. Daedunsan.

This park offered gentle walks — nothing as strenuous as the day before — and one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples we visited, the Baegyang Temple. Since temples were usually set in the mountains with glorious views, visiting them provided a generous portion of both natural and man-made beauty.

One of the most interesting temples we visited was Haeinsa on Mt. Gayasan, where a collection of more than 80,000 woodblocks engraved with Buddhist scriptures is kept in a naturally cooled and controlled environment. The building, built in 1488, was designed with an adjustable ventilation system to prevent deterioration of the books. The temple has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of several that we saw on our tour of South Korea.

Many of the temples and other historic sites have been rebuilt, sometimes many times, because of destruction by fire. At every site, plaques explained the significance and history in Korean, Chinese, Japanese and English.
Noticing at one that the English explanation put full blame for the destruction on the “wicked Japanese occupation,” I asked our guide what the Japanese translation said. Not only did the Japanese version not blame that country for the burning and looting, it did not even mention the Japanese occupation of Korea. I guess raking in the Japanese tourist dollars is much sweeter revenge than angry words on a sign.

Besides the mountain parks and Buddhist temples, we also visited the Nagan Folk Village, an inhabited village where the residents live as their ancestors did in thatch-roofed huts. They own their land and homes but have agreed to keep them historically accurate. The residents don’t have to suffer without electricity or satellite TV, though; the evidence is just camouflaged for the public. The walled village is quaint and interesting.

Rewarding climb

The Boseong Green Tea Plantations were another surprise. I had no idea that tea was such big business. Sculpted rows of bright green tea hedges undulated over and around the hillsides for miles. We learned that there are four annual cuttings of leaves. The first is the most expensive, and the last is the least expensive. The price difference is considerable; each step up doubles the price.

With such mountainous terrain in South Korea, the arable land is farmed intensively. We saw extensive greenhouses in the valleys, as ubiquitous as chicken houses in Georgia. Orchards and ginseng fields were abundant, and in rural areas we had to drive around the blankets of rice and other grains which were laid out in the roadways to dry.

After several days of adjusting to our new time zone, Steve convinced me that I was ready to try again to tackle a mountain hike. Our guide took us to Chilburam Rock at Mt. Namsan, where over the centuries dozens of religious images have been carved into the granite. This was one place devoid of tourist buses and schoolchildren.
An hour’s hike up the mountain brought us to a landing where seven Buddhas and bodhisattvas had been carved out of the rock. I was willing to stop there, but J.J. and Steve insisted that I could make it to the top, and I am so glad they did!

After another 15 minutes of climbing up a twisting, rock-strewn path, we rounded a narrow ledge and discovered another Buddha carved into the side of the mountain. The view from on top was spectacular, and we enjoyed the secluded spot in rare solitude.

Historical sights
That night and the next we spent in Gyeongju at the Bellus Hotel (054 741 3335, www.bellushotel.com). For $40 a night, we had a comfortable room with a computer and Internet connection in the room.

Gyeongju is a city that is steeped in history, with ancient tombs, an astronomical tower dating to the seventh century and the Gyeongju National Museum, a world-class repository of archaeological treasures from the peninsula. The museum was filled with schoolchildren, and we felt like celebrities when one group of giggling teenage girls asked us to sign autographs for them — a homework assignment, they explained.

The penultimate day of our trip was spent visiting another Korean folk village close to Seoul. This one was a bit like Williamsburg, Virginia. The replica buildings were peopled with actors who displayed ancient skills and acrobatic techniques and played traditional musical instruments. There was even a traditional wedding ceremony.
We also walked the perimeter of Hwaseong Fortress, a walled city within the city of Suwon. The juxtaposition of ancient and modern was never more apparent as I gazed out over the ramparts to a shop with a large sign announcing “Hair Art.”

Saying good-bye
On our last night in South Korea, we stayed in a small city on the outskirts of Seoul. Our accommodation, named for some reason Hotel River and Jewelry (69-14/10 Singal-ri, Giheung-eup, Yongin, Gyeonggi-do; phone +82 31 281 3011), almost needed to provide an instruction manual, it was so high-tech.

For $56, we had a room with one king-size bed and one single bed, a desk/dressing table, computer with Internet connection, 27-inch TV and bathroom with a whirlpool tub and a 4-square-foot shower with multiple showerheads. A small refrigerator proffered orange juice and bottled water at no extra charge, and the glasses and cups were sanitized with an ultraviolet device that looked a little like a microwave oven.

Since our flight to New Zealand didn’t leave until the evening, we had the day to browse around Seoul. After visiting the National Folk Museum and the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Steve was anxious to see the heart of commercial Seoul: the electronics stores.

We spent the rest of the afternoon gazing at building after building, floor after floor, of every type and brand (except Japanese) of electronic gadget and device. If you took one major downtown U.S. department store and turned it into an electronics-only store, you would get an idea of the scale of just one of these buildings.

One of the delights of traveling with a knowledgeable guide is that we learned things we wouldn’t have gleaned from guidebooks or museum plaques. J.J. taught us that Korean is a phonetic language with 24 main characters. Although invented over 600 years ago, its simplicity is unlike other more complicated Asian languages.

After stopping at a bookstore for a beginner’s guide to the language, I enjoyed studying the characters and pronunciations as we traveled from site to site. Still, about the only phrase I remember now is “Gamsa hamnida,” or “Thank you.”

So I’d like to say “Gamsa hamnida” to all of the delightful people of South Korea who made our trip a truly memorable one.