The Korean tourism organization recently hosted a contest called #MyVisitKoreaStory, in which it asked participants to post their favorite picture and a story from their travels to Korea. Since I enjoyed my time in Korea so much, I figured I should participate, and as usual…things got a little bit out of hand. I knew I would never be able to contain my thoughts to 100 words. Luckily, there was also the option to send in longer reports, which I did. I figured I might as well share that report on here as well:
I was incredibly fortunate to have been able to spend a semester as an exchange student at Seoul’s Chung Ang University this spring. This allowed me to live in Seoul and to experience Korea for four months. It was an unforgettable experience.
While I was able to visit some other parts of Korea as well, I spent most of my time in Seoul, so I’m going to focus on that city. It’s an incredible city that I miss every day since returning home. The thing that sticks out first is what a modern city Seoul is. The public transportation system is very fast and efficient (although the buses can be a bit harder to navigate, at least for a foreigner) and the availability and speed of internet and mobile data is incredible (including wifi on all subway cars). It is a truly global city, but one that is still easy to navigate despite its size and busyness. There is always something to do and there are countless things to discover, so much so that it feels like I barely scratched the surface in my time there. Seoul is also incredibly clean despite there being very few public trash cans – I still haven’t quite figured out how that’s possible. Seoul also feels like one of the safest places I have ever visited. Even when I missed the last subway once and wandered through Seoul for five hours at night, I never once felt unsafe.
However, Seoul is not only one the most modern cities in the world. It also combines the modern and the traditional in fascinating ways. There are traditional buildings like palaces and temples all over the city. Visiting them was one of my favorite activities as you could walk alongside a busy street and then in the next moment feel like you have been teleported to another time and place. What all these places share in common is a very calm and relaxing atmosphere compared to the busy and sometimes overwhelming daily life in Seoul. It was great to just experience these places, taking in the atmosphere and architecture, watching Koreans wearing traditional hanboks, and so on. And there are countless places like this in Seoul that allow you to dive into Korean culture, for example Seonjeongneung, Bongeunsa Temple, Jongmyo Shrine, the various palaces, and Jogyesa Temple. These places left the most lasting impression on me, which is why I selected a photograph that captures their unique atmosphere.
My favorite area to visit overall is probably central Seoul – strolling through Gyeongbokgung Palace, eating some great street food at Tongin market, visiting Insa-dong and watching a traditional drum performance, and then relaxing at Cheonggyecheon stream, all within walking distance. The area sorrounding Myeong-Dong and Namsan Tower is another favorite – everybody should experience some DeliManjoo while strolling through Myeong-Dong’s busy shopping areas and see the sunset atop Namsan Tower.
Speaking of food, Korean food was another highlight. I had never had Korean food before coming, so I was a bit nervous at first. I had heard some ‘horror’ stories about living octopus and incredibly spicy food. And while stuff like that definitely exists, Korean cuisine offers so much more and everybody should be able to find something to enjoy, whether it’s Bibimbap, Bulgogi, Mandu, or the many street food options. To be honest, the food item I probably miss more than anything else is simple banana milk. Sure, you can get banana-flavored milk everywhere, but it just doesn’t taste right.
Another thing to love about Seoul is that it offers countless hiking opportunities, often right in the middle of the city. You can just get off the subway and walk up a mountain within minutes, which is something I had never really experienced before. I never used to go for hikes back home, but picked up the habit while living here and went for some great hikes with fantastic views of Seoul. At first, it’s a bit discouraging to encounter a bunch of Korean senior citizens that make their way up the mountains at least three times as fast as you do, but you get used to it. Another thing that confused me at first was the presence of exercise equipment on every single mountain I climbed, often near or at the top. And I always came across at least a few Koreans working out, no matter the time of day. It seemed unfathomable to me to still have the energy for a workout after having climbed the hill, but I guess the average Korean hiker is in much better shape than me. My favorite hikes in Seoul were Inwangsan with great views of Seoul’s fortress wall and Yongmasan, which was quite challenging but offered a truly breathtaking view of Seoul. If you don’t feel like hiking, there are countless parks that you can relax in, or you can take a stroll alongside the Han river, which I also did countless times.
There are a million other things I could talk about, from the K-Pop phenomenon, to the KakaoFriends that can express one’s feelings better than a thousand words ever could, to the countless markets all over Seoul, to the surreal experience of visiting the DMZ, and so on. On top of that, there are many other great places worth a visit, like Busan or Jeju island. Needless to say, there are countless things to experience in Korea in general and in Seoul in particular.
Finally, my interactions with Koreans were always pleasant. Despite some language barriers, I never felt out of place or unwelcome, and was usually able to resolve any misunderstandings quite quickly. In my interactions with them, all the Koreans were always very helpful and friendly. This includes a bus trip to Gyeongju (on which I was the only foreigner), where I stood at the wrong parking lot of Bulguksa Temple and missed my bus. In most other places, the bus probably just would have left without me, which would have left me stranded in the middle of nowhere with only around 5000 won of cash on me. That certainly would have made for a stressful experience. However, the bus stuck around long after I missed the departure time and searched for me, which was a huge relief. And none of the other passengers seemed to be bothered by the delay caused by me and even applauded when I finally found my way back. In short, the Korean people I encountered where much nicer to me than I deserved.
This semester was definitely the experience of a lifetime and something that I will always cherish. Over these four months, I have grown incredibly fond of Korea in general and Seoul in particular, and would love to return there one day.