I’ve been having dreams about this mountain.
Although the picture is admittedly awesome, pictures can’t even begin to show how it felt to be standing up there. This is taken at the top of the Baegundae trail in Bukhansan National Park in Seoul, South Korea. In this picture, I’m standing right below the tallest peak which is 837 meters.
But I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself. How did I get from Cleveland to standing on top of a mountain in South Korea?
Almost two years ago, my little sister, Laura, moved to Eumseong County in South Korea to teach English. When she renewed her contract for a second year, I knew that I couldn’t let another year go by without going to visit her. I’m honestly still not sure how it happened – it all seems a little unreal – but I just decided to go, saved the money, booked the flight, bought a sweet backpack, and went to South Korea!
I went during Laura’s summer vacation, so we decided to try and cram as much of South Korea as we could into to 8 days. We both fit everything we needed into backpacks and made our way across the country from Seoul to Gyungju to Busan to Eumseong and back to Seoul. I’ve always wanted to be the kind of girl who travels all over the place, but the truth is that I haven’t really ever ventured too far from the midwest. I consider myself pretty adventurous, but I’m also super anxious, not very organized, and sometimes I can just be a little lazy. But once I decide to do something, I almost always see it through. I don’t have a lot of travel tips to offer or any grand insight into Korean culture, but what I do have to share is how an overly anxious and scattered midwestern girl spent 8 ridiculously awesome days running around Korea and having the time of her life.
I was not prepared for how gigantic Seoul is. I’ve been to New York, but this somehow seemed so much larger and busier to me. There are people everywhere. Laura and I did most of our travelling during the week, but it didn’t matter what time it was, there seemed to be people everywhere at all times. The city itself also seemed to just go on forever. We went to Seoul Tower on our first full day, where you have a great view of the whole city, and I honestly couldn’t tell when the city stopped. It seemed like tall buildings and busy city streets just went on forever. Laura told me that we only saw about 2% of the city in the two and a half days we were there, and I don’t doubt it.
We stayed in a hostel in the Hongdae area near Hongik Univeristy. My first night, we ventured out to find some food and see the city, and although I was exhausted after a 14 hour plane ride, there was something about the city that was so energizing. There are restaurants on every corner with open doors, and shops and bars along every street. The scene in Hongdae is a little younger – due to the university – and it has a really cool, artsy vibe. There were street performers all over the place – young boy bands, singer song writers, and even some rap battles.
We spent the first day doing touristy things. We went up to the top of Seoul Tower, toured Gyeongbok Palace, did a LOT of walking and eating. The palace was pretty cool – it’s on a very busy street in the middle of Seoul, but the grounds are really peaceful – even with all of the people around. The Korean architecture and design blew me away, and it was also pretty funny to see that all of the doors were super short. It was a really humid and hazy day, so not ideal for walking around outside, but it wasn’t too bad, and a quick nap in the hostel before our dinner of Korean BBQ was just what I needed.
Conquering the Mountain
Our second full day in Seoul is when we ventured to Bukhansan. I had heard a lot about the hiking in South Korea, and it was definitely on my “must-do” list. We had talked about going to Seoraksan – one of the most popular hiking spots in the country – but it would mean cutting our time in Seoul short, so we decided to go to Bukhansan instead since the mountain is right outside of Seoul and only a short subway ride away. We chose to hike all the way to the peak (go big or go home, right?!) and we were surprised to see that the trail was mostly deserted. Usually hiking in South Korea is very crowded, but we were pretty much the only ones on our trail, and when we did see some Korean hikers they mostly just gave us weird looks. Turns out we somehow took the “advanced” trail, and it lived up to its name. There wasn’t much of a trail – it was really just rocks stacked up as steps and once we got near the top, there were just cable ropes going up sheer rock face that we had to use to pull ourselves up. It was long and hot and tedious, but totally worth it. Once we made it to the top, we got a round of applause from the other hikers (I think they may have doubted the young Americans!) I’m happy with the pictures I got, but I wish there were some way to capture everything – how it felt, how it smelled, the way the wind felt around my face, and how the world just seemed to stretch out forever.
Goodbye Seoul, Hello Gyeongju
After Seoul, Laura and I packed up our backpacks and took a bus across the country to Gyeongju. Gyeongju is a small city near the coast, and was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla. It is full of cultural properties left over from that time including an ancient observatory, temples, and ancient burial grounds. Laura and I stayed only one night, but it was a perfect day. The busride from Seoul was 3-4 hours, and we got there mid-afternoon. After checking into our hostel, we rented bikes and pedaled around the city to see the sites. It was sunny and beautiful, and a little warm, but not too hot. We rode past the observatory, through flower fields, and stopped for bibimbap (a delicious Korean rice dish) for dinner. At sunset, we headed over to Anapji Pond where we watched the sun set over the water, took pictures, walked around in the bamboo, and had a great, relaxing time. As we walked back to our hostel, we had to stop for some street food which ended up being a corn dog with deep fried potatoes in the batter. What?! Delicious.
The Beaches of Busan
After Gyeongju, Laura and I hopped on the bullet train to Busan! Busan is South Korea’s second largest city, and is located on the southern coast. Laura had never actually been there, so we were both really excited to see the city and of course the beaches! But although the weather was perfect in Gyeongju, it wasn’t so perfect in Busan. We were there for 3 days, and it rained every single one. Our first day there, we were still hopeful, so we put on our bathing suits and headed to the beach anyway, but it was too cool and hazy to do anything but sit for a few minutes on the beach and be sad.
We got over it pretty quickly though, as there was still so much to do and see even if it was raining. Busan had a different feel to it then Seoul – it’s a coastal town, but still has the feel of a big city (although not nearly as large as Seoul, it’s still pretty huge). I loved how bustling everything was – people and buildings crowded at the foot of beautiful mountains and beaches.
For our first night in Busan, Laura and I headed to Gwangalli Beach for dinner and drinks. It was actually one of my favorite nights of the trip, and one of the most relaxed. We ate Samgyeopsal at a restaurant right on the beach. Samgyeopsal is a pork belly that you grill at your table and eat with garlic and oil and lettuce — oh, and of course Kimchi — everything comes with Kimchi! After dinner, we stopped for a drink at a bar, but then decided that it would be more fun to drink on the actual beach. There are no open container laws in Korea (just like in Vegas!) so you can walk around with your beer or cocktail. This meant we could buy some beer at the convienence store, along with some sparklers and sit on the beach. Gwangalli Beach is especially awesome at night because the bridge lights up and the whole thing is just beautiful. It’s also one of the only beaches that feels like a “city” beach – the other beaches are a little further away, but this one is right in the middle of everything, and it was just really fun. Although other people had the same idea we had, the beach definitely wasn’t crowded, and we had such a fun, relaxing night.
On our second day in Busan, we met up with one of Laura’s Korean friends who showed us around Jagalchi Market – a GIANT fish market – and the surrounding areas. The rain didn’t let up – it poured most of the day – but it was still lots of fun. The fish market was ridiculous – so big and full of so many sea creatures. Laura’s friend, Sunjun, was an excellent guide. Although Laura had been doing a great job getting us around Korea, it was nice to have a native speaker around. Sunjun was also eager to give me and Laura an authentic Busan eating experience. He made us reservations at a seafood place near the market, so we knew everything we were eating was super fresh.
The meal was amazing – I won’t necessarily say it was delicious – but it was a really cool experience. Since most of the restaurants Laura and I had been eating in were in big cities, we usually sat at tables which isn’t actually the normal way to eat in Korea. At this place, we went totally Korean. We left our shoes in the entry way of the restaurant and were taken into a private room where we sat on the floor. Sunjun did all of the ordering, and it seemed like food just kept coming! It was mostly raw fish, which isn’t really my jam, but I did my best. Most things were served whole – fish and shrimp – and Sunjun wasn’t shy about eating all of the parts, including the fish eyeballs! One of the things they served us was raw squid that was actually still moving. I’m an adventurous eater, but this meal definitely pushed my limits! I did draw the line on the still moving squid, but I felt like I had to eat something unexpected, so I did try Beondegi – steamed silk worm larvae. It’s a pretty common snack food in Korea, and it wasn’t too bad. I wouldn’t eat it again unless I needed to for some reason, but I’m glad I did eat something authentically Korean.
On our last day in Busan, we made it back to the beach. This is embarrassing, but I’m actually not totally sure what beach we were on! I think it was Songdo Beach. Again, it was too cold for swimming, but this beach has a walkway along the cliffs that stretches for miles beside the ocean. There were places along the walkway where you could step off and climb on the rocks or go fishing if you wanted to! The views were great, and running around the rocks was a blast. The only downside was when Laura slipped on a rock and dropped her phone into the ocean! We did manage to make it back to our hotel even without a smartphone. Even though it was our last night in Busan, we were exhausted after a long week and ended up spending it playing games and eating snacks in the hotel. Our hotel also had a bath tub (a luxury when travelling in Korea), so we were pretty happy with our night in.
A Trip to the Country Side
After a full week of big cities, Laura and I headed back to her apartment in Eumseong County. Laura’s little town is pretty small, so getting there required some work – subway, train, bus and of course some walking! But we made it to her apartment mid-afternoon, and it was so much fun to see where she lives and works. We had an early dinner and walked around her town. We stopped at her favorite coffee shop where everyone knew her, and did some shopping for funny English t-shirts and comfy “Korean” pants (brightly patterned, light weight pants that mostly old ladies wear.)
Laura took me up to her favorite spot – the roof of her apartment! I could definitely see why it was her favorite place to hang out – it’s quiet and relaxing, and the view is startlingly beautiful. After so many days of big cities, it was pretty cool to see a different side of Korea. Rice fields stretch out next to Laura’s apartment building and of course there are hills and mountains everywhere.
The next day I packed up my backpack for the last time and started the loooong journey back to Cleveland, Ohio. I have so much more I could say about my trip, and of course more pictures, but I think I might have to save that for a separate blog post. I barely even got to touch on all of the food we ate! SO GOOD!
It’s the kind of trip I never thought I would take, but will remember forever. Getting able to spend the whole week with my little sister – to see the country she’s made her home – was priceless. I did definitely rely on her for most of the getting around and for all of the talking, but I still felt like I learned so much about International travel and certainly pushed myself outside of my comfort zone.
Korea was not somewhere I would’ve just picked to travel to without having a family member there, but I’d definitely encourage you to consider it – it is such a beautiful, friendly country with so much to do and see and eat. People keep asking me if it’s somewhere I’d want to visit again – definitely! I feel like I only saw a small fraction of the country, and I’d love to go back and continue my adventure.