Very few American leisure travelers go to Korea. What better reason could you be waiting for?
In many foreign countries, American travelers are met with studious indifference, if not thinly veiled contempt. In Korea, American visitors are looked upon as one might regard a rare tropical bird, an exotic creature to be studied at length. It's not a place for the paranoid traveler--in Korea, everyone really might be staring at you.
The stares aren't hostile, but simply curious, as though Koreans are trying to unlock the secrets of the inscrutable West. But with everyone minding your own business, it's hard not to feel like the Occidental Tourist. I ran across a group of 10-year-old Korean boys who stared at me with such laser intensity that I had to break the tension by walking over and saying hello. To my astonishment, they immediately formed a tight circle around me and began shouting excitedly, "What time is it? What time is it?" The Koreans are a punctual people, but this did not explain the tribal intensity of the question. Besides, most of the kids were wearing watches.
As I soon figured out, the boys weren't really interested in knowing the time, but were showing off their latest English lesson. "Potato," one boy proudly said to me, apropos of nothing. "Besbol," said another. I responded by invoking the name of Korea's proudest export, the starting pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"Chan Ho Park number one!" I said.
The boys flashed beatific smiles.
Korea was once known as the Hermit Kingdom for having shut its borders to foreigners in the 19th century. And while modern Korea is a prosperous industrialized nation very much involved with the West--and particularly the United States--it retains more than a whiff of its once-reclusive ways. Korea contains one of the most homogeneous cultures in the world, its people having defended their country and its traditions from centuries of invasion and foreign influence. Koreans speak a language uttered nowhere else in the world and hold common cultural values; many even share the same family name. More than 20 percent of Koreans have the surname "Kim," while another 15 percent are named "Lee." Many ticket windows in Korea are marked by signs reading "Koreans" and "Foreigners," which is pretty much how many natives see the world.
Although 37,000 American troops are stationed in Korea--one of the last legacies of the Cold War, there to support the South in its ongoing struggle against the stubbornly Communist North--the soldiers rarely venture off-base to mix with the locals. Korea is well off the tourist track for most American and European travelers, and even Korea's own tourism promoters boast about the country's being "the best-kept secret in Asia." The country gets about 4 million visitors a year. About 8 percent are Americans, but many of these are Korean Americans visiting family or friends, or relatives of Americans in military service, or business people visiting the many Korean multinational firms (Hyundai, Daewoo and many others). American tourists with no special connection to Korea who choose it as a vacation destination are few and far between.
But Korea's relative isolation is actually one of its most attractive features, offering American travelers what increasingly has become a rarity: a foreign adventure that's, well, largely foreign. South Korea is conveniently compact--about the size of Virginia--and is easy to navigate, with a relentlessly efficient and surprisingly cheap rail and air system. Most Seoul taxi drivers speak a smattering of English, the same level of proficiency as cabbies in many American cities.
Korea is a country of unexpected contrasts, with one foot firmly planted in the 21st century and the other in the Choson Dynasty of the Middle Ages. For me, Korea's dual nature was personified by a villager I sat next to one day on a bus from Seoul. He was a wizened little man, with a wispy Confucian beard setting off an ancient leathery face that seemed to contain the collected wisdom of the ages. On top of his head, he wore a bright blue L.A. Dodgers cap. Chan Ho Park number one!
Korea's modern trappings are obvious the moment you hit the ground. Seoul, an energetic mega-metropolis of nearly 11.5 million inhabitants, is ringed by huge concrete and glass apartment buildings, all stenciled with large numbers to distinguish them from the look-alike high-rise next door. There are electronic gadgets everywhere, from tiny hand-held palm computers to the monstrous video billboards that give downtown Seoul a kind of "Blade Runner" feel. Cellular phones are an obsession with Koreans, even more so than among Americans. One in three Koreans owns a cell phone, and many of the devices play annoying little tunes when they ring, such as "What's It All About, Alfie?"
Korea's links to its past are more subtle, but cut deeper. Seoul changed hands four times during the Korean War, and most buildings in the city were built after 1953. However, several ornamental gates and lavish Choson Dynasty palaces have survived, many of them huddled amid high-rise office buildings. One of the best preserved is Ch'angdok-gung (roughly, "The Palace of Illustrious Virtue"), a sprawling regal compound built in 1405. The palace was the seat of Korea's royalty until the late 19th century, and up until 10 years ago, still housed descendants of the royal family. The palace features a series of exquisitely detailed wood-roofed structures, hand-painted in a riot of colors that somehow comes off as tasteful. In comparison, it seems vaguely disappointing that the residence of the American head of state is simply painted white.
Many of Korea's ancient treasures are housed in the National Museum of Korea, which contains thousands of artifacts from prehistoric Korea to the 20th century. Korean pottery is especially beautiful and advanced for its time, particularly the delicate blue-green celadon pottery from the turn of the last millennium, and the brilliant white porcelain from the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910). Korean artisans often etched subtle patterns of flowers, clouds or cranes into the porcelain, and their skill is confirmed by the fact that museums worldwide display pottery bought (or stolen) from Korea.
Seoul's Pagoda Park offers a more engaging journey to Korea's past. Strolling the pocket park is like taking a trip back in time, with elderly Korean men playing board games and chatting away the day. In a sense, the oral tradition that has so many young Koreans yakking on cell phones has its roots in gatherings such as this, where conversation is a kind of folk art. It's a great place to sit back and enjoy the lilting melodies of Korean conversation.
Commerce is another time-honored tradition that survives in modern-day Korea, and Seoul has a well-deserved reputation as one of Asia's premier shopping sites. Tongdaemun Market, Seoul's largest and most tumultuous outdoor shopping venue, combines the best elements of a flea market and a rugby match. As you walk through a warren of stalls and small storefronts, you are besieged by frantic offers to buy everything from golf shirts and army surplus equipment to luggage and commercial deep fryers. One small store I passed sold nothing but industrial-strength twine; another shop was filled floor to ceiling with buttons. In an adjoining farmers market, live eels and turtles are for sale at stalls overseen by mean-looking women hacking the heads off fish.
Some store owners hawk their wares by shouting into microphones; Koreans are firm believers in the notion that the loudest voice wins. I walked into a supermarket in Seoul that assaulted shoppers with a harsh amplified voice that sounded like roll call at a North Korean re-education camp. It turned out to be the guy at the fish counter reeling off the specials of the day.
Still, some of the bargains are worth putting up with the frenzy. Although the South Korean economy has started to recover from the Asian crisis, the country's currency--the won--has fallen nearly 50 percent against the dollar over the past three years. Korea isn't as cheap as certified Asian bargains such as Thailand and Indonesia, but there are great deals on selected merchandise, notably tailored suits, athletic wear, electronic gadgets, luggage, camping gear, amethyst and ginseng. Being closer to the sweatshop source, Nike sneakers are 10 to 20 percent cheaper in Korea. Major league baseball merchandise is wildly popular, and because most of it is unlicensed, cheap; a fitted wool Yankees cap costs $5 in Seoul, compared with at least $20 in America. Walkman-style personal stereos start at $10. CDs are about 10 percent cheaper.
The hardest sell in Seoul is in It'aewon, the shopping and nightclub area on the edge of Korea's largest U.S. Army base. More than once, I had to beat off an aggressive tailor clutching a tape measure trying to fit me for a suit. One store owner, aware of the area's overly aggressive sales tactics, tried to assure me that his operation was different. "Please look," he said, gesturing me into his store with a magnanimous wave of the hand. "I will not kick your ass."
At night, It'aewon turns into a tacky nightclub area bathed in a lurid neon glow. Clubs sport names such as Cheers, Cowboy and White House, patrolled by bar girls with their own brand of hard sell. There's even a club called Viagra, perhaps the first night spot in the world to associate itself with erectile dysfunction.
Like shopping, eating is a ritual art in Korea. Anyone who's been to a Korean barbecue restaurant in the United States will have a general idea of the cuisine--bold, colorful and, above all, spicy. But Korean food in its native setting is somewhat more fiery and much more varied than its American version, with some restaurants offering more than 50 different side dishes.
Korean food begins and ends with the national dish, kimchi. The tangy chili and garlic fermented cabbage dish appears at every meal as though decreed by law. One of the most popular main dishes is often served at Korean restaurants in the States--pulgogi, which literally means "fire beef" but is often translated as "Korean barbecue." Marinated strips of rib-eye steak are grilled on a metal hot plate at your table, adding a festive element to the meal. After the meat has been thoroughly grilled, you wrap a piece of lettuce around it, add a garlic clove and some other grilled vegetables, and eat. A similar dish, kalbi, features the same setup with beef short ribs. Meatless dishes are more scarce, but there are excellent cold noodle soups and a variety of vegetable stir fries.
Almost all Korean food is spicy, even for Koreans. It's not uncommon to see people using their napkins to wipe the sweat off their foreheads as they plow through their meal.
There is some disagreement over whether the water in Korea is suitable for Americans to drink. My hotel in Seoul tried to reassure its English-speaking guests with this notice: "Our water in sleek condition is a phenomenon of the water of a spa, certified favorable to all means." Just in case the guy purifying the water was the same person handling the translations, I stuck with bottled.
A favorite vice is soju, a clear potato liquor favored by many Korean males. One shot of soju gives you a warm, tingling feeling; two shots turn you into a witty conversationalist; three have you speaking in tongues; four make you wish you stopped at three.
Besides Korean barbecue, the only image most Americans have of Korea is of Hawkeye, Trapper John, Klinger and the rest of the wacky crew of the 4077 M*A*S*H, who reigned on American TV for 11 years and still rule in repeats. Surprisingly, the show is virtually unknown in Korea. Seoul's excellent War Memorial (actually a war museum) features a large 3-D display of "medical activities by a field hospital," but doesn't even mention the acronym MASH, nor does it depict any of the soldiers wearing a dress.
Nevertheless, the shadow of the Korean War (1950-53), and the country's division into North and South near the 38th Parallel, continues to loom over life in Korea. Nearly all the South Koreans I talked to favored reunification with the North, somewhat surprising in light of the North's current status as scary Stalinist rogue state in the midst of a five-year famine. But South Koreans seem to view their Northern counterparts as wayward brothers who will one day see the error of their ways, and there's more contact between the two Koreas than you'd think. The Southern government has a cabinet-level Ministry of Unification, and several large corporations from the South opened factories in the North.
Despite the strong desire for reunification, South Korea is still actively wary of the government there. Once a month, South Korea holds a countrywide civil defense drill, complete with wailing sirens and people scrambling into shelters. The North still drops propaganda leaflets by balloon over the South, which South Koreans are instructed to turn over to police. The lingering tension of the Cold War is palpable at the DMZ, which runs as close to 30 miles from downtown Seoul.
To visit the DMZ, you have to join an official tour and take a bus that winds through military checkpoints. Amid the tangle of barbed wire and guard towers are large billboards that the South has erected on hilltops overlooking the North, so citizens there can see them. One reads in Korean: "Come Over to Your Country!" Another proclaims: "We Have Over 10 Million Cars!"
Some of the most startling sights in Korea can be found around the town of Kyongju, a four-hour train ride southeast of Seoul. Once the capital of Korea during the Silla Dynasty (57 B.C.- A.D. 935), Kyongju remains the country's cultural capital, renowned as a kind of museum without walls. The area contains hundreds of tombs, burial mounds, stone Buddhas and pagodas scattered amid the craggy hills surrounding the town. It's one thing to see a sculpture entombed behind a velvet rope in a museum; it's quite another to walk through the woods and stumble upon a weathered statue nestled under a canopy of birch trees, sitting exactly where it has for more than a thousand years. Although Korea today has slightly more Christians than Buddhists, Buddhism's roots stretch deeply into Korea's glory days as major Asian power, a period that even modern-day Koreans invoke with a sense of nostalgia.
The crown jewel of Kyongju is a mountaintop grotto known as Sokkuram, or "Stone Cave Hermitage." A steep two-mile path winds up a rocky peak, lined by hand-lettered signs in Korean exhorting hikers to struggle onward for the greater glory of the fatherland. At the top of the fog-shrouded mountain is a large, domed chamber with an imposing 10-foot stone Buddha sitting serenely on a lotus pedestal, gazing toward the East Sea. The Buddha's expression is a bit like that of the Mona Lisa--subtle, vaguely inaccessible, but somehow benevolent.
Fragments of Korea's more recent, but nonetheless remote, past can be found 60 miles northwest in Hahoe, a preserved folk village where descendants of the same clan have lived for more than 500 years. The village features dirt roads, mud and straw huts, and livestock roaming the grounds, and isn't a re-creation, but an actual functioning hamlet. In typically Korean fashion, Hahoe is an incongruous mixture of old and new, with sport-utility vehicles parked beside mud huts and hand-carved masks propped up against a quietly humming Coke machine. The villagers go about their work while studiously ignoring the throngs of tourists snapping pictures of their quaint ways, a stoicism reminiscent of the Pennsylvania Dutch. I would have felt guilty about gawking at the villagers except that all of the other tourists were Korean, which somehow didn't make it seem so bad.
Even in the cell phone era, folk culture continues to have a steady grip on the Korean people. Ancient superstitions still hold sway--the number 4 is bad luck, you're never supposed to leave your chopsticks in the rice or write your name in red ink. Confucian social etiquette still permeates Korean society. The second question many Koreans asked me (after either "Where are you from?" or "What time is it?") was "How old are you?," an attempt to place me in a hierarchical social structure based partly on seniority. First impressions are critically important to Koreans, an emphasis that seems strangely exaggerated to Westerners. Herbal folk remedies, most famously ginseng, are still widely popular in Korea, and many towns have entire shopping districts featuring medicinal herbs stored in huge glass jars. But with millions of Americans now gobbling echinacea, gingko and St. John's wort, the advanced West may just be catching up to the primitive East.
One of my most revealing glimpses into Korean culture was a visit to one of the many hot spring spas found throughout the country. It's a great opportunity to see everyday Koreans with their hair, not to mention their pants, down.
Soaking in a hot spring pool is a popular Korean pastime, a more relaxed version of what working out at a health club is for Americans. Hot spring facilities are segregated by gender and usually include a locker room, lounge and adjoining spa area.
The spa itself consists of a series of mineral water pools, each kept at a different temperature--ice cold, hot, really hot and you've got to be kidding. There's often a large enclosed sauna and dozens of shower stations where people scrub themselves down before and after soaking in the pools. Scrubbing is actually an elaborate communal ritual. Fathers sit on low stools scouring their squirming sons with a soapy washcloth; older men scrub each others' backs.
After a vigorous scrub, you move through the pools like an exercise circuit; soak in one of the hot pools to open the pores, sit in the sauna to sweat out the toxins, and then, just as you think you're about to internally combust, plunge into the cold pool. The abrupt temperature change gave me a tremendous head rush, and for a moment, everything blurred like a partially loaded Web page. When the scene cleared, I was shivering in a cold pool of water with a bunch of naked Korean men.
Oddly, the hot springs were one of the few places in Korea where I felt I wasn't being stared at as a foreigner. I took that as proof of one of those Deep Truths of travel, that when people of different nationalities come together and sit naked in a tub, everyone's pretty much the same.
Korean Air flies direct between Washington Dulles and Seoul. The round-trip fare for departures by Nov. 30 is $979. (The fare goes up to about $1,054 for departures in December and early January, but blackouts apply.) American, in partnership with Asiana Airlines, also flies between Washington Dulles and Seoul. The round-trip fare is about $1,065. For info on travel to Korea, contact the Korea National Tourism Organization, 1-800-868-7567, www.knto.or.kr.Tom McNichol lives in San Francisco.