South Korea: Seoul to Busan by Train

From top to bottom, South Korea is packed with culture and creativity
Monday, May 14, 2018 to Sunday, May 20, 2018

What’s the difference between the two Koreas?

I’m probably the only person, first visiting North Koreainfo-icon before traveling to South Koreainfo-icon. After my unusual volunteering trip to Pyongyang, I wanted to see the South too. My expectations were clear, I was ready for a day-and-night difference. The North is a socialistic dystopia, with an obsession for the military, while the people live in absolute isolation and also suffer from a weak economy. The Southern side of the Korean peninsula is known as the fun side. After the Korean War, the USAinfo-icon pumped a lot of resources into South Korea, making it one of the best showcases for free markets. The direct result of this are loud K-Pop, flashy neon signs, and eccentric high-tech toilets.

Before even going there, my head was already full of wild images. I was clearly biased, but I tried hard to stay neutral and make authentic experiences. I was very curious to hear, what South Koreans tell about their Northern neighbors. With a quick stop in Beijing, I flew directly from Pyongyang to Seoul. These two capitals are only 200 kilometers apart, but all direct ties were consciously disrupted. Thanks to its liberal society and modern infrastructure, moving around South Korea is very safe and easy. In order to see more of the South and planned a train ride from Seoul to Busan. When preparing this trip, I discovered the first oddity: Google Maps works better in North Korea than in the South, no kidding.

That is also why there is no route on this journey’s map!

Welcome to crazy Seoul, home of Gangnam Style

The first thing I noticed in Seoul, where the people’s eccentric fashion style, and the flashy neon lights. Both are much more extreme than I’m used to from Europeinfo-icon, not to speak of North Korea. Especially in the central business district of Gangnam, pedestrians, and shops all scream for your attention. Remember the song Gangnam Style? Yes, that’s Seoul! After the eerily empty streets of Pyongyang, my eyes had to get used to this wild spectacle again. All my other senses were affected as well: suddenly I had a thousand noises in my ears, the air was full of smells, and I had to watch my steps much more carefully. Here, I had to mind the masses, not to bump into another person. Not like on the other side, being cautious because of the omnipresent regime.

Seoul is a huge metropolitan area with diverse districts. After the initial excitement, I found more quiet areas. Especially, the artsy and creative Isandong village caught my attention. Besides enjoying a traditional Bibimbap (hot pot of mixed foods) and observing how clever vendors turned traditional art into modern merchandise, I discovered the most obscene museum ever: the poop land! In no other country, could you find a place like that. And never before, did I have a desire to explore this. But hey, there is always something new to learn. Seoul made it clear from the beginning: South Korea is different.

Daytrip to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

No Korea trip would ever be complete without a visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This is a 4-kilometer-wide stretch between the two Korean Nations, one of the world’s largest no-man’s-lands. Only between Moroccoinfo-icon and Mauritaniainfo-icon, have I seen a more dramatic border. South Korea has quite a different approach to the ongoing conflict than the North. Instead of intensifying the tensions, they openly deal with it and even turned it into a tourist attraction. Every day, a horde of buses shovel loads of curious minds to the border. There, all the sensation hungry globetrotters gaze across the DMZ into hostile territory. Well, that is, when the weather is nice. The day I was there, we saw nothing because of the thick fog. Next, we went down the steep shaft into the legendary infiltration tunnel. Rumors say that North Korea still digs new tunnels to enter and conquer South Korea. That makes a good story.

Overall, it was an interesting trip and I was not surprised to hear the guides talking badly about their neighbors. In fact, none of them has ever been to the other side and maybe will never be able to. It felt a bit like talking about a Schrödinger’s cat in the box (by the way, this is a very interesting phenomenon of quantum physics). You never know whether she’s still alive unless you look into the box, which they obviously cannot do. Throughout my journey, I discovered a common theme: both sides still talk about one unified Korean Nation. They even used the unification of Germanyinfo-icon in 1991 as a positive example. Both sides, however, forget that the people should be the driving force and not the leaders.

Cultural and archeological discoveries in Gyeongju

Seoul and the DMZ were pretty spectacular, but I wanted to see more of the country. Together with a new friend from CouchSurfing, I took the KTX Sancheon train to Gyeongju. This high-speed train is said to drive up to 300 kmh and is extremely comfortable. Despite the fact that I have never heard about Gyeongju before, it is quite an important region. For one thousand years, it was the capital of the ancient Silla kingdom that covered two-thirds of the Korean peninsula. It’s pretty sad to see how the younger Koreans have lost interest in their own heritage and instead celebrate modern pop culture in the big cities. Exploring this place and reading about its long history sparked my wildest imagination. I started to depict the ancient times with Kings and knights – or ninjas, yeah!

In and around Gyeongju, there is plenty to discover. Besides ancient burial mounds (unspectacular hills, covered in green grass) and lovely restored wooden palaces, there are also Buddhist temples. Many of the relics are scattered around the modern-day city and can be explored effortlessly. The city also hosts a replica of a traditional wooden house with colorful engravements. This uniquely Asian architecture is both fascinating and highly appealing to study. It turned even more spectacular when I took the local bus to Bulguksa Temple and the Seokguram Grotto. This Buddhist temple is really impressive, and the thousands of lanterns bring it back to life. Getting to the grotto took a bit more time, but the mysterious walk through the misty forest nearly gave me goosebumps.

No wonder, all these places are protected as UNESCO world heritage sites.

Lovely surprises in the big Port City of Busan

On the next day, I finished my train ride from Seoul to Busan. I expected Busan to be a loud and dirty city because it hosts the world’s fifth-busiest port. But really, never judge a book by its cover. In and around Busan, I discovered many pleasant surprises. Right behind the train station, I stumbled into Chinatown. At first sight, this looks like everywhere else: big wooden signposts and countless red lanterns. But when I looked closer, I discovered Russian inscriptions and Russian looking ladies sitting in front of their bars. I have no idea what happens inside, but I guess they cater to the roughest Russian seamen (Vladivostok is just around the corner). One street further, I found the 168 stairs of Busan, a real urban artwork with colorful street arts on multiple levels. From the top, you have the best view over the bright lights illuminating the warm nights.

When taking the metro along the coast, you will find stunning places in both directions. Towards the north-east, I discovered the attached township of Haeundae, with a cute pedestrian city center and some of the most modern skyscrapers. But be aware, this area can be packed with foreigners enjoying a beer or Korean food. On the other side, towards the south-west, I encountered even more creativity and beauty. Over the past years, local artists turned a poor township into a real tourist attraction. The Gamcheon Cultural Village is the perfect showcase, how people can up-scale an entire district in a short period of time. Here’s the recipe: first clean up the entire area, paint all houses in flashy colors, and then declare it a tourist attraction. International visitors will flock in and love it, especially since we have Instagram. This same concept also worked in Cape Town [AS7] (Bo-Kaap district), Morocco (The Blue City), and also Tenby (Walesinfo-icon). I wonder what country will be next?

Busan is definitely the most inspiring and creative port city I have ever seen.

One Korean People with two different Korean Nations

Having seen both South Korea and North Korea in a short period of time, I’m startled. Never before, have I seen such a clear case of divided people. I don’t know any other region in the world, where so many individuals share a common identity and history yet are completely torn apart and live in utterly different worlds. They clearly have the same cultural heritage and still eat similar foods. I also observed a deep connection between both populations. Especially the older people still remember their cultural heritage and the time of a unified Korea.

However, this bonding is slowly fading away, as already the second generation grows up who never had a common life. Those who never were in touch with real people from the other side already started to lose interest. In reality, everyday life could not be more different. This is not even a question of politics, rather than continuously evolving values, real-life experiences, and everyday habits. It is hard to imagine how both sides could unite again and share a common base. One side would have to give up high standards, slow down, and return to more essential values. The other side had to give up their extreme ideology and might be overwhelmed by the fast-paced modernity.

After all, I remain optimistic but not excited. Humans are the most adaptive animal on planet earth. We have proven to survive under the most extreme circumstances. I see no need for Korea to unite, living in peaceful coexistence can also be an option. My only hope is that the borders will slowly fall, and everybody gets an opportunity to choose their own lifestyle. But you know what, this is also my biased opinion with a liberal European background. Individual choice is our highest achievement, something Koreans don’t really have.

Greetings to my Taiwanese friend and funny travel companion at LunTravel.

My waypoints on this journey