A City with Seoul

While out at dinner with Yun Jin Lee, a lovely South Korean girl who I’d met that evening through a friend, I asked her: which three words would you use to describe South Korean culture and its people? She thought about it and replied, ‘competition, education, and appearance.’ I could definitely see this in the capital I had been exploring, Seoul. There is a huge onus put on education. From schooldays, children work hard, starting as early as 7am, and attending after school cramming sessions that can drag on well into the night. Parents can fuel the competition, hoping for their children to secure a place among the few top-tier universities in what’s been dubbed as an ‘education arms race’ as it will dictate their perceived success in society.

EWHA Women’s University Campus

The emphasis on education is not all bad news, as it is also what transformed South Korea from a war torn country into a leading economy. There are reminders of its past all over the city. For example, statues of comfort women (women forced to work as prostitutes for the Japanese) can be found around the city to commemorate them. You can also visit the Seodaemun Prison which was used by both the Korean government (to suppress uprisings) and the Japanese during the Japanese-Korean Wars.

A statue of a comfort woman
Seodaemun Prison

With South Korea being the plastic surgery capital of the world, it’s no wonder the other key word was appearance. It’s so common, that an operation is often a high-school graduation gift. No wonder then, that the shopping districts (Insadong and Myeongdong were my favourite) overflow with shops specialising in face masks and skin care. The make-up and skin care products are phenomenal and a must buy while you’re in the city. A personal favourite purchase was a face mask that bubbles. If you want to take pampering to the next level, then you can drop into a jjimjilbang (a Korean bath house/spa.) Alongside the multiple indoor & outdoor pools, saunas, cedar baths, and beauty treatments, they have cinemas, game rooms, restaurants and chill out/meditation areas. They are open 24 hours a day and you can even stay there overnight. Dragon Hill is a very good one.

Myeongdong
Insadong
An assortment of face masks, make up removers, face wash, hand cream, a blackhead clearing kit and hair masks

I briefly mentioned in a previous blog post how my trip to Seoul culminated in me missing my flight. Despite this, I think Seoul may just be my favourite city in Asia so far. I know that’s a big claim, but it really blew me away. South Korea seems to be massively underrated, but it has a fascinating history and culture. The food is also unreal. While it’s largely meat-based and famous for its BBQs, it is possible to still thoroughly enjoy it (being a temporary pescatarian definitely helped!) Since being back in the UK, Korean food is actually one of the few Asian cuisines I’ve been hugely craving rather than being sick of the sight of it. I have a long list of London based Korean restaurants I need to attend.

So why should you go to South Korea (or officially, the Republic of Korea, ROK for short) and Seoul in particular? To be honest, if I’d had more time to spare I wouldn’t have limited myself to just Seoul. I would’ve headed out to spend time in the countryside, or gone out to the book village which caught my eye while perusing my guidebook. The good thing about Seoul though, is that it is a good introduction to ROK and a good base from which to start exploring the rest of the country. If you don’t have time to do the latter, you’ll still come away feeling satisfied. You need at least four days in Seoul. I spent five nights and I barely scratched the surface, so I’d recommend a solid week to get through all the main attractions.

THE BASICS

Currency: South Korean Won
Language: Korean
Time Zone: UTC +8
Visa: Not needed (for UK passport holders)

Gyeongbokgung Palace
PALACES & OTHER FOCUSES OF TRADITIONAL KOREAN CULTURE

There are five grand palaces in Seoul which were built in the Joseon dynasty, but we only had time to go to one. We chose Gyeongbokgung, which is the biggest and oldest one. It is a huge complex with museums and a daily changing of the guards ceremony at 10am and 2pm in front of Gwanghwamun (the main gate). It is open Wednesday-Monday whereas most other palaces close on Mondays so this is something to bear in mind when constructing your schedule. The other palaces are: Deoksugung, Changdeokgung (a world heritage site which requires you to join a guided tour), Changgyeonggung (this one has a secret garden) and Gyeonghuigung.

Changing of the Guards ceremony at Gyeongbokgung
Gwanghwamun Gate

Seoul also has an abundance of hanoks (traditional Korean houses). The most popular collection of these in Bukchon Hanok Village which has around 900.

A couple dressed in traditional Korean attire
ARTS AND ARCHITECTURE

Seoul has some beautiful art and architecture. There are tons of galleries and museums, but with limited times and funds we had to be very selective. There are lots of free galleries though, like the ones that are dotted around in Insadong and an abundance of street art.
There is stunning architecture all over the city. Cheonggyecheon, for example, is a man-made river that was installed to bring a natural space into the city and is now a hub of life. The City Hall is also a sight to behold.

Seoul City Hall

There is also a section of Seoul called Mullae-dong or Mullae arts village, which is in a district that is mainly dedicated to steel production. The inhabitants wanted to make it look more aesthetically pleasing and it has since been transformed, with art murals dotted throughout the streets.

FOOD & DRINK

While nightlife in Japan can feel slightly seedy, and China a bit uptight, ROK (or Seoul, at least) seems to strike the perfect balance. Soju (a clear liquor, similar to vodka) is very popular to drink. Don’t underestimate it, with strengths of up to 53%, it’s lethal. I thought I’d be fine. A few hours later and I’m speaking Mandarin to a poor taxi driver and wondering why he’s refusing to take me to my university dorms (which are in Shanghai.) Sounds like too much? Korean beer is pretty good and how can you resist when some are endorsed by K-popstars. Girls Generation have actually outsold Spice Girls (85.10M vs 85M.) GIVE K-POP A CHANCE.

The food is very diverse, with only one certainty – kimchee will be served with everything you order. Kimchee is basically a collection of mini side dishes such as pickled vegetables. This isn’t restricted to just Korean food, I went to an Italian restaurant in the Mullae arts village and the spaghetti still came with kimchee!

Other foods to try:

Yachae Jook (Vegetable porridge which tastes A LOT nicer than it sounds.)

Yachaejeon (The vegetable pancake pictured in the left hand side of the image)

Odeng (fish cakes)

Tteokbokki (Rice cakes in a spicy red sauce)

Melona ice pops (Just a personal fave)

Street food is also very popular, with a very good (if little on the pricey side) selection in Myeongdong

*Special shout out to Abby for making my time in Seoul even better. I met this little ray of sunshine on my first night at the hostel I was staying at as a further testament to the perks of solo travel! We subsequently spent most of our trip together, and then met up in Hong Kong and Shanghai. See you in Utrecht!*

Essential China: Everything You Need to Know

One of the best things about studying in Shanghai is the easy access it gives you to the rest of China. China is so well-connected, and a great jumping off point for going further afield and exploring Asia. Obviously, it’s huge, but the transport network ensures that you can get to anywhere in the country in a few hours. This series, ‘Essential China’ will focus on the how to travel around China and places to add to your itinerary. We will cover places such as Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Taiwan, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Suzhou and Nanjing.

Panda in Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

So, why should you go to China? More importantly, why wouldn’t you? As the fourth biggest country in the world, it is diverse. No matter what kind of traveler you are, China has something to offer you. It has one of the most interesting histories on Earth, is brimming with natural beauty, is famous for its unique food, and is rapidly changing and developing all the time. It has the second most UNESCO world heritage sites in the world (34),  surpassed only by Italy. China is both massively underrated and misunderstood. It often gets such a bad press in foreign media that people subconsciously dismiss it or harbour negative conceptions about it.

Street food in Suzhou
East Nanjing Road, Shanghai

Go to a hostel in Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Japan or Vietnam, and you’re bound to be surrounded by foreigners. China, not so much. Perhaps it’s because getting a visa is more difficult, or that it’s not perceived to be as affordable as other Asian countries. People that I’ve spoken to, just don’t seem to be that interested in China, or if they are, they think that a few days in Beijing and/or Shanghai will suffice. It won’t. If you neglect China, you are missing out big time.

View of Qinianmen from the Temple of Heaven, Beijing

THE BASICS

Getting there
Fly direct from London to Shanghai in roughly 11 hours or from London to Beijing in around 10.

Currency
¥ (RMB/CNY)

Time Difference
+7

Language
The official language of the country is Mandarin, but each province has its own dialect. Even Shanghai has its own dialect: Shanghainese. China is divided into 34 areas. The dialects spoken in them can vary as much as from English to Dutch, but the standard script of the written language remains the same. Due to its pictorial language, China is one of very few places where you can speak the language but also be illiterate.

The art of calligraphy in Chengdu
Tea City, Shanghai

Visa
You will definitely need a visa, unless you are planning on just visiting Hong Kong/Macau. Don’t let this put you off though, the process is simple and quick! Depending on whether you are simply traveling, studying or planning to work here, your visa will differ. All information regarding the process including step-by-step guidelines can be found here. Remember that if you’re planning to go to autonomous regions like Tibet, you’ll need to get a separate visa. Due to the political situation there, foreigners aren’t permitted to travel there solo and must go with a tour group which can be expensive. The best offer I’ve found is here.

Map of China. Image credit: Travel China Guide

Getting around
Something that I’ve found, is that there are many people traveling around China with tour companies. This is so unnecessary. Granted, China is more difficult for the average traveler, but if anything, this ensures that it’s more of an adventure. Do it alone. I believe in you. If you want to attempt to explore the entire country, it may be necessary for you to occasionally take internal flights between your destinations. However, the train network is also huge and continually expanding and developing. There are bullet trains connecting most major cities, for example, you can get from Shanghai to Beijing in less than five hours.

If you’re not in a rush and you wish to save money, you could also opt for the sleeper trains. They have four different types of accommodation: hard seats, soft seats, hard sleeper and soft sleeper which vary in price. By western standards, they are very inexpensive. I’ve taken the sleeper train from Xi’an to Chengdu in winter and it was not uncomfortable in the slightest. There are four beds in each room (two bunk beds). Most cities have efficient metro networks and pretty much everywhere has buses.

Hectic subway scenes in Shanghai
Soft sleeper bed from Xi’an – Chengdu

Political Situation
China is run by the CPC (Communist Party of China). It’s not quite a communist country, they adhere to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ In the past thirty years, there has been an unprecedented amount of rapid development and privatisation leading to China emerging as one of the global economic superpowers. As the focus has arguably been on economic development rather than social, censorship still plays a role in keeping the peace. Therefore, you will need to download a VPN if you wish to use your phone/laptop to access most social media in China (whatsapp, youtube, facebook, snapchat, gmail, Instagram, skype, BBC news, etc). There are many free options but the best ones are constantly changing, so do some research closer to the time of your trip.

Resources for before you go
If you’re planning to spend a prolonged amount of time there, or if you’re just simply interested in getting to know the culture more, then I’d highly recommend having a look at the following resources. Many are books/films that I’ve studied in my Chinese culture and history classes over the course of my year at STA, and others are simply things I’ve found interesting. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just an introduction. If you want any more, then feel free to ask!

Books: The Rape of Nanking, China: A Modern History, China in Ten Words, Factory Girls: Voices From The Heart of Modern China, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, The Art of War, The Peony Pavilion
Films: Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, To Live
Ted Talks: Behind the Great Firewall of China; Are China and the US doomed to conflict; Learn to Read Chinese With Ease; Understanding the Rise of China

The Great Wall of China