Discovering South Korea

We didn’t know quite what to expect from South Korea but we really rather enjoyed it! It has the cleanliness and modernity of Japan at a fraction of the price and the people are super friendly, to the point where randoms would occasionally strike up short conversations with us on the subway or (outside of Seoul) call out hello from the other side of the street. And after Beijing it was so orderly and quiet (not to mention the significant improvement in air quality).

We only had a little over a week (18-26 October) and spent most of it in Seoul, with a couple of days in Daejeon and Busan on our way down to catch an overnight ferry to Japan. We could have happily spent longer! It would have been great to get out to Jeju Island, to see more of the country’s many national parks, or just delved deeper into Seoul and Busan.

Cheonggye Stream, Seoul

10 great things to do in Seoul:

  1. Explore cool areas such as Myeong-dong, Hongdae and Insa-Dong. Myeong-dong is full of restaurants, bars and shops and is particularly lively at night. Hongdae is the area around Hongik University and good for cheap eats and a youthful studenty vibe. Insa-Dong is probably the busiest area we went to and full of interesting street food snacks, shops and stalls selling handicrafts, and occasionally live street performers.
  2. Namsan Tower. You can take a cable car up to the base of the tower and pay again to ride up the tower itself, but if you’re feeling energetic you can save money by walking up to the base where you’ll get a pretty decent view without even having to fork out for the tower.
  3. Five Grand Palaces. If you’re short on time try to visit the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace. You can only enter as part of a guided tour and there are a limited number in English so it would be best to go in the morning to secure a place. (We missed out!)
  4. Museums and architecture. There are some fascinating examples of modern architecture in Seoul but you can combine it with some meatier culture by visiting one of its many museums, some of which are worth visiting just to marvel at the architecture alone.
  5. Gwangjang Market. A huge traditional Korean market full of food stalls on the ground floor and silk and satin goods on the second floor.
  6. Dongdaemun shopping area. If you’re in the mood for some clothes shopping you could easily spend a whole day exploring the floors of the multiple shopping centres on Jangchungdan-ro near the Dongdaemun History & Culture Park metro. (It’s unbranded stuff, but that’s the only kind I’m interested in.)
  7. Dolsot bibimbap. The best kind, served in a hot stone bowl so raw egg cooks when you stir everything together and the rice goes crispy towards the end.
  8. Korean BBQ. They’re everywhere in Seoul but there are some all-you-can-eat ones (the best kind!) around Hongik University where you can eat as much barbequed meat, seafood and vegetables as you like for around ₩12000 per person.
  9. Unusual street food. Different areas offer different types of stalls – if you spot something you’d like to try grab it while you can because you might not come across it again. Some of the more interesting ones we saw were hotdogs plastered in crinkle cut chips, spiral crisps and pastries filled with soft serve icecream.
  10. Demilitarised Zone half day trip. A variety of companies offer tours to the DMZ, we just picked one at the tourist information office. It’s quite a sobering experience. It’s actually very touristy and the whole idea that people are profiting from visitors going to see it is quite surreal, but I definitely recommend it. Some companies offer full day trips that also include a visit to the Joint Security Area on the actual border at Panmunjom but you’ll need to book one of those at least four days in advance and submit a copy of your passport – there’s also a very strict dress code.

Seoul tip: some of the metro subway stop names are very similar, make sure you’re heading towards the right one!

Seoul skyline at night

Daejeon

We chose to stay in Daejeon because it was close to Songnisan National Park and a nice halfway point between Seoul and Busan. The park was particularly beautiful when we visited as the autumn leaves were out in full colour. There are different hiking routes available and they are pretty serious hikes – I may have scoffed at the people with hiking poles when we started out but I’m sure they were laughing at us later on when it got tougher. Just inside the park entrance you can also visit a 7th century Buddhist temple complex called Beopjusa. Its features include an impressive 33 metre tall golden plated bronze statue of Buddha and Palsangjeon, one of the only two wooden pagodas left in South Korea.

Little stone cairns at Songnisan

Busan

With not even a full day in Busan we barely scratched the surface of what there is to do and see. The main thing we did manage to fit in was to visit Jagalchi Fish Market, which I highly recommend. There are three different fish markets in the area: dried, fresh and live. The live fish section is on the first floor of a multi story building and is as fascinating as (if not even more so) than an actual aquarium. We have no idea what half the things in there were! They had mussels ten times the size of normal mussels, strange fat worm like-like things, tanks stuffed full of octopus, striped fish, flat fish, squid that would have jumped out of their containers onto the floor if there wasn’t a clear lid keeping them in, and more besides. You can eat many of these things as super fresh sashimi on the second floor (even the strange fat worms).

Jagalchi Fish Market, Busan

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How to travel from China to South Korea by ferry

There are a couple of different options for travelling between China and South Korea by overnight ferry. We read up on them over at The Man in Seat 61 but until we took the crossing ourselves we had a lot of questions we couldn’t quite find definitive answers to online. Now that we have travelled one of the routes I thought I’d share the process we went through for anyone else that might be considering it. If you are, hopefully it will answer some of your questions. And save you from being screamed at in Mandarin by an irate cabin mate as a bonus.

Weidong Ferry

Route & schedule

We travelled from Qingdao in China to Incheon in South Korea with Weidong Ferry. This ferry only travels in this direction three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Your schedule for taking it would run something like this:

  • 06:00 – Depart Beijing accommodation and take the subway to Beijing South Station.
  • 07:10 – Train (category D) departs Beijing South Station.
  • 12:22 – Train arrives at Qingdao Station (terminus).
  • Transfer to Qingdao Port Passenger Station. It’s about 2.5km but there are no signs or directions. Your options are:
    1. Walk. We did this with the aid of preloaded Google Maps on our smart phones (GPS works even without a data connection). It takes 30 minutes if you don’t get lost on the way.
    2. Bus. According to Google Maps you can take the 8路 bus towards 康宁路 from the front of the train station. The bus itself takes about 11 minutes (3 stops) then it’s a 5 minute walk to the port.
    3. Taxi. You may want to have the address ready in Chinese if you take this option: 山东省青岛市北区新疆路6号.
  • 14:30 – You need check in before this time and be ready to board.
  • 16:00 – The ferry’s scheduled departure time. (Ours didn’t depart for another 2 hours.)
  • 11:00 (following day, Korean time) – The ferry’s scheduled arrival time at Incheon. (Ours was about 1 hour late.)
  • Transfer to Incheon Metro Station (a short walk or a very short taxi ride). Incheon is on the outskirts of the Seoul metro system and it takes about 1 hour to travel into the city centre.

Booking tickets

The train is more likely to sell out than the ferry so definitely book your ticket to Qingdao in advance. We used China Trip Advisor and had the tickets delivered to our accommodation in Beijing. (China Travel Guide was also recommended to us for this service.) This seems to be a pretty common procedure but you should give your hotel a heads up in advance as a courtesy. (Or you can have a go at buying the tickets yourself.)

Unless you’re travelling during Golden Week you most likely won’t need to book the ferry in advance. By the the few accounts we found online it’s fine just to turn up at the port and buy your tickets on the day. However, we booked ahead because I just didn’t want to risk it. To make a reservation (we did this 2 days before we wanted to depart):

  • Ring Weidong’s Qingdao office on +8653282803574 during business hours. It’s expensive to call from a Beijing number so we used Skype credit (using the app on a smart phone) and it cost 17p for an 8 minute call.
  • There’s at least one lady who speaks some English at this office but you may want to enlist the assistance of someone who speaks both Chinese and English (hotel staff, a friend, maybe information centre staff) to assist with pronunciation of passport names and numbers so everything is clear.
  • You will need to provide your passport number, name as shown on passport, date of birth, date of departure and desired cabin class (see note below).
  • Regarding payment: foreign credit cards are not accepted and the website talks about paying by wire transfer but we didn’t know how to go about doing that. We asked if we could pay in cash at the port and this was fine.

You won’t receive a reservation number but the booking is linked to your passport numbers so you don’t need one.

Cabin classes

You can read about the available classes and their prices at Weidong’s website but I think the prices might be out of date. Alex and I booked one way Business Class tickets and they cost 832 CNY each including Bunker Adjustment Factor (October 2012).

Note that Business and Economy Class are shared with other passengers and segregated by gender. If you want to stay with a travelling companion of the opposite sex you’ll need to book a Royal Class or Deluxe Royal cabin.

Business Class cabin

At the Qingdao Port Passenger Station

Weidong Ferry’s windows are on the left hand side inside the terminal. Show your passports at window 3 and the staff member will look up your reservation using your names and passport numbers, take your cash payment and print your tickets. (When we were there the girl that served us spoke a little bit of English.) If you get stuck you can go up the slightly dingy looking stairs in the corner and they’ll take you to the Qingdao Weidong Ferry office (that you phoned to make your reservation) and they should be able to help you.

After you buy your tickets you’ll need to pay a port tax of 30 CNY at a different window. (You’ll be pointed in the right direction.)

There are not many facilities at the port. You can buy a couple of snacks but if you want to bring your own food supplies on board it would be best to go shopping at a supermarket the day before you leave Beijing,

On the ferry

All prices are listed in Korean won. You can access boiling water from a coin machine but it only takes won. It was never very clear to us whether Chinese yuan were accepted at the shop or restaurants (they weren’t accepted at the cafe), but we later met someone who had been able to use yuan at the shop and received their change in won. If you want to be on the safe side, take some won with you or bring enough food supplies to last you for dinner and breakfast.

Important note! There is only one key per Business Class cabin. To avoid upsetting fellow cabin members (who may or may not scream at you in Mandarin like mine did), lock the door and return the key to reception whenever you’re not in the room. Normally the door is left unlocked while anyone is in the room.

Bon voyage!