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A trip that will see me watching an 80-year-old woman diving into deep blue sea water to harvest shellfish, spending time at ancient Buddhist temples and marvelling at 15th-century palaces that housed emperors of eras gone by starts in Seoul, the soul of Asia.
We touch down at Incheon Airport just as dusk is falling over the Yeongjong Island and take a one-hour drive to Seoul through Sunday evening’s snail-paced traffic.
City lights glisten in the distance as the spectacular 12.5km Incheon Bridge carries us over the Han River into the buzzing, lively city whose bright neon lights compete for attention.
My interpreter, Jinah Kwon, suggests the Namsan Tower for mesmerising 360° views of the city, but a quick call to her contact shatters the plan – cable cars have been closed off for the night.
So we await daytime to enjoy the city, which is crammed with rich historical buildings contrasting sharply with towering modern-day skyscrapers.
Nestled between centuries-old palaces to the north of the city centre is the Bukchon Hanok Village, a cluster of traditional South Korean houses showcasing 600 years of history.
A stroll through the beautiful narrow alleys of this neighbourhood takes us through craft shops and museums offering a glimpse into ancient Korean living, such as lessons in traditional embroidery and knot tying.
But my attention is drawn to the owl museum owned by former housewife Myeong-Hee Bae.
We sit for tea and her husband explains to me a fascination with birds associated with witchcraft in most African countries. The museum has a collection that spans three continents and 45 years of relentless visits to antique stores.
Surrounding the beautiful neighbourhood are five 15th-century palaces infused with the rich culture and history of South Korea.
The Deoksugung is a palace of contrasts. Set right in the heart of Seoul, the palace boasts Hanok-style buildings standing side by side with Western-style structures built in the 1900s to replace the emperor’s bedroom, which was gutted by fire, causing speculation it was an assassination plot by Japan.
Art lovers will thoroughly enjoy a visit to this palace, as the west wing houses the National Modern Arts Museum.
We take a walk through a 15th-century princess’s room and, other than pink robes folded neatly in the room, pictures hanging on the walls are the only window into 15th-century South Korean royal living.
A steep and narrow stairway leads to a first-floor room where a woman in a Hanbok (traditional dress) bows to greet us, and then leads us to sit on colourful cushions on the floor. It is tea time – an opportunity to experience the South Korean tea-drinking culture.
An array of teas is served, including Gingseng and Dung-gul-le cha, believed to stabilise blood pressure. We then proceed to the Chandeokgung palace, a beautiful hillside structure of cryptomeria wood, painted wood and stucco. Unlike other palaces, Chandeokgung is in a tranquil setting, with lotus ponds and terraces evoking the regal grandeur of times gone by. It is here the Joseon dynasty emperors entertained guests under pavilions.
The highlight of my day is dressing up in a Hanbok, a traditional Korean dress, and cooking South Korean food while perfecting my grip on the chop-sticks. Thanks to the Institute of Traditional Korean food I get to make Hobakjeon (pan friend summer squash) with Bulgogi (seasoned sliced beef).
Of course, since meal time in South Korea is traditionally a big feast with lots of side dishes, we tuck in. We have rice and vegetables like Kimchi (spicy cabbage) and wash down our meal with Makgeolli, a traditional rice wine, and then a sumptuous dessert of mini-rice cakes. For religious reasons, a Muslim journalist in our group opts for cold rice tea.
The Institute shares the same building with the rice museum, which exhibits countless rice cakes and confectioneries so visitors not only get to experience the art of preparing and cooking Korean food but many forms of preserving, cooking and making interesting delectable confectioneries from rice.
If Seoul takes visitors through the rich historic era of the Josean Dynasty, it is in the Western Central region of the Korean peninsula that visitors get to peek into the 922-year cultural history of the Silo Dynasty.
Set in a tranquil countryside dotted with Mandarin trees and rolling valleys, Gyeongju is a haven for nature lovers, archeologists and city slickers seeking an escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city. I recommend renting a bicycle to ride through rustic villages and rice fields while admiring the scenic panoramic views.
We stop for lunch at a roadway al fresco restaurant called Sodre and there we enjoy scenic views of rolling valleys while tucking into a sumptuous meal of a variety of side dishes like crab, kimchie, beef strips left to braai on a grill at the centre of the table, potato noodles, rice, clam, peanuts in soy source and a variety of other dishes infused with rich Korean flavors that tantalise taste buds and send you on an “overeating” guilt trip the minute you wash the food down with rice tea.
The outdoor restaurant is a welcoming stop for food lovers as the side dishes never stop coming. As soon as one side dish is wiped out another one is brought in to replace it.
But weight watchers need not worry as the cycling, walking around viewing century-old tombs and ascending steep hills to get to Buddhist temples will offer a great work-out.
My guilt wears off soon as we arrive at the Seokguram Grotto.
The tour bus snakes its way up and around a scenic path of a dense forest and stops at the entrance to the Seokguram Grotto.
Perched atop Tohamsan mountain, the grotto boasts a 3.5m Buddhist statue described as “the most beautiful Buddha”. The huge granite sculpture was erected in 751AD, and it is the main attraction for tourists who start off by pounding the Tong-il-dae-jong (Great Bell of Unification).
A narrow, scenic path with breathtaking views of valleys and blue skies leads to a cave with the imposing granite sculpture of the Seokgamoni Buddha. Exuding power and a serene aura, the Buddha sits cross-legged on a lotus throne facing the North Sea, his eyes half- closed in meditation and a faint smile on his lips.
Lying 4km to the east of this treasure, on the edge of the Tohamsan, is the Bulguksa temple, an architectural masterpiece that houses most of South Korea’s national treasures. In the courtyard of this temple sit two Pagodas built during the 751AD rule of Silla king Gyeongdeok.
It is here that visitors stack up pebbles into shapes of pagodas, make a wish and hope for the best. Stacks of these pagodas are clumped up behind the temple, with visitors taking time to make a wish. Others simply rub the shiny golden pig in the courtyard for good luck.
The Buddhist temples are not all Gyeongju has to offer. The area is a maze of historical offerings that transcends visitors’ expectations and carries them into a virtual time machine, giving insight into ancient Korea.
The area boasts the Cheomseongdae of the Silla Dynasty and grave mounds where royals remain buried with treasures like jewellery, artefacts and other utensils they used while still alive – highlighting their reincarnation beliefs.
Built during the reign of Silla Queen Seondek in 643AD, the Cheomseongdae is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving star-gazing observatory, and was used to observe stars in order to forecast the weather.
But this fades into almost nothingness when compared with majestic, breathtaking panoramic views of Jeju Island.
Water drips down from above the ceiling of the dark slippery cave and rhythmic clanks of stepping stones against puddles of water and lava granite echo through the 8km passageway.
Lava hangs above us as we make a 2km walk through the belly of the Manjang caves, formed by lava from a volcanic eruption over 100 000 years ago.
It is intriguing, mesmerising and leaves visitors yearning to walk the remainder of the 8km passageway – but it is impossible, owing to ongoing restoration work.
But there is more to explore on this picturesque island whose indigo sea waters and breathtaking views make for a first-choice destination for romantic honeymooners.
To get perfect panoramic views of the island renowned for its women divers, the Seongsan Ilchubong peak is a perfect spot. But it plays to the line “no pain, no gain”, since getting to the top of the 182m-high peak takes some serious effort. You take breaks, but when you feel like giving up, the views draw you on. - Saturday Star
IF YOU GO
l* Visas: South African citizens don’t need an entry visa if staying for less than 30 days. However, if you are a journalist covering or filming a story, then you need an A1 visa.
South Korea is located in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. It shares its northern border with China and Russia, while to the east lies Japan. The Korean Peninsula, which lies on the north-eastern section of the continent of Asia, also has some 3 200 islands in addition to the mainland.
* Population: It stood at 48 million in July 2009.
* Capital City: Seoul, which is the most populated South Korean city at 10 million people.
* Currency: Won (KRW) 1 000 won = US$0.78 / 1 277.25 won = US$1
* Language: Korean, although with different regional dialects.
* Temperature: Seasonal temperatures average from 23-27ºC in the warmest month of August and from -6 to 7ºC in the coldest month, January.
* Getting there: South Korea has nine international airports, and the Incheon International Airport outside Seoul welcomes flights from South Africa with Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia airlines and KLM.
Once in South Korea, connecting flights can be arranged to other parts of the country with Korean Air.
If you are intending to travel via SAA to Hong Kong, a connecting flight to Incheon Airport through Asiana Airlines is available.