SEOUL -- I arrived at Incheon International Airport on August 15. It was 4:25 p.m. local time. The interpreter, Kwak Saera, was waiting for me at the airport holding a placard with my name written on it in English.
I started talking in English, but Saera told me to speak in Persian. She said she received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Tehran. She was a fluent English speaker but she preferred to speak Persian. She said her name is similar to the Persian name Sara, a name which frequently appears in elementary school textbooks in Iran.
Saera said on that day (August 15), the streets were not busy because it was a public holiday, commemorating the day that Korea was liberated from Japanese colonialism in 1945, which in the Korean language is called Gwangbokjeol, meaning Liberation Day. National flags were flying in the city in celebration.
We travelled from Incheon airport to Seoul in an Opirus car and finally arrived at the Plaza Hotel, opposite City Hall. After I took a short rest at the hotel, Saera took me to Seoul Tower. We boarded an electric-powered bus full of passengers and travelled to the tower, which is located on Namsan Mountain in central Seoul.
Before my visit to the Republic of Korea (ROK), I had expressed interest in the development of green technology in the country, and I was thus happy to board an electric-powered bus. As the bus was driving up, we could see people, including some foreign tourists, walking up Namsan Mountain to reach the tower.
When the bus reached its last station, we walked dozens of meters to reach the tower, and Saera stood in a long line to get tickets to the top of the tower. Before taking a full tour of the tower, we had a dinner, tasting Korean food and simultaneously enjoying the scenery by looking at the metropolis of Seoul from atop the tower. Everything there was exciting.
The visitors, mostly Korean youths, were taking pictures of the tower and of the city from the top of the tower.
Jongmyo: A Confucian shrine
On the morning of August 16, first we visited Jongmyo Shrine, which was close to our hotel. The guide, a lady quite fluent in English who has degrees in history and political science, gave explanations about the philosophy behind the establishment of the shrine.
The shrine, founded during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), is where the ancestral tablets of deceased kings and queens are enshrined and sacrificial rites are performed for them.
As we were visiting the shrine, which is surrounded by a forest, the songs of birds reverberated through the air.
Jongmyo was built because according to Confucian philosophy, the spirit separates from the body upon death, and the spirit goes to heaven while the body returns to Earth. For this reason, Koreans built tombs and shrines separately. They kept spirit tablets to house the spirit of the deceased and made offerings to these tablets to worship their ancestors.
The shrine, the oldest and most authentic of the Confucian royal shrines, is situated on the ridge of Eungbongsan Mountain, near the Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung palaces.
Jongmyo was built in 1395 after King Taejo, the founder of the Joseon dynasty, selected Hanyang (present-day Seoul) as the capital of his kingdom. About 200 years after the construction of the shrine, it was burned down by Japanese invaders in 1592. The current shrine dates to 1608. With the passage of time, the facilities were enlarged as more kings and queens were enshrined.
The most important buildings at Jongmyo are Jeongjeon and Yeongnyeongjeon. At present, Jeongjeon contains 19 chambers housing 49 spirit tablets of kings and queens, including Taejo. Yeongnyeongjeon contains 16 chambers housing 34 tablets.
Among all the Confucian states in Asia where similar shrines were constructed, only Korea has preserved its royal shrine and continues to perform royal ancestral rites and ritual music, known as Jongmyo Jerye and Jongmyo Jeryeak. That is the main reason that Jongmyo was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995 and Jongmyo Jerye (royal ancestral rites) and Jongmyo Jeryeak (royal ancestral ritual music) were designated by UNESCO as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.
The walkways stretching from the main gate to inside the shrine are covered with rough stones. This forced the ritual attendants, including the king, to walk slowly, as is appropriate for a solemn occasion. And none of the structures at Jongmyo are lavishly adorned, highlighting the shrine’s solemnity.
Lunch at a traditional restaurant
After visiting Jongmyo Shrine, we headed to Insa-dong Street, where shops sell traditional Korean clothes and other items.
Stores on Insa-dong Street specialize in a wide variety of goods, such as hanbok (traditional clothing), hanji (traditional paper), traditional teas, pottery, and handicrafts.
The neighborhood is a fascinating place for tourists, who buy Korean souvenirs there.
Saera said this area is popular with Chinese and Japanese tourists and some shopkeepers can speak Chinese and Japanese.
In former times, noble families lived in this area because it is near Kyungbok Palace, she added.
After touring Insa-dong Street, we drank Korean green tea and then left for a lunch at a traditional restaurant.
The restaurant was a traditional house with a few rooms on each side and a yard in the middle. We were led to a small room for lunch. As we were entering the room, a group of Western-looking tourists were guided to another room for lunch.
We were served a number of Korean foods whose names I did not know, except for kimchi. Saera then described the nature of the various dishes to me.
Visiting the Mapo Resource Recovery Plant
Afterwards, we headed toward the Mapo Resource Recovery Plant, where 650 tons of waste is recycled per day. Kim Dong Sik, the site manager, provided explanations about the process of recycling.
The plant, built in 2005 on a landfill, provides heating for 20,000 homes in the Mapo area of Seoul and clearly highlights the important steps the country has taken in the development of green technology and the protection of the environment.
Later, we visited the campus of Hongik University, a university in the Mapo-gu district of central Seoul best known for its faculty of fine arts, and the surrounding streets, which are mostly frequented by Korean youths.
Enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Han River
As we were walking the streets, I told Saera that I would like to see the Han River. We got in the Opirus and travelled to the Han River, which passes through the heart of Seoul. There I saw some people jet skiing and some Western-looking men and women who were windsurfing.
As we walked along the river bank, some people were biking. There is a special lane along the river for bicyclists. Some people were also running along the river bank and others were pedaling duck boats. Ferry boats were sailing on the river, too.
The Han River offers jet skiing, water skiing and powerboat, motorboat, and duck boat rides.
The Han River provides golden opportunities for sports enthusiasts and people seeking peace of mind.
Unfortunately, we only had a little time to walk along the river and enjoy the scenery.
The beautiful scenery along the river, combined with its skillfully designed bridges and the nearby modern residential towers, leave an unforgettable impression in the minds of foreign visitors, especially people from arid or semi-arid regions with few rivers.
Every time our car passed along the river or crossed over it, I took long looks at the river, wishing I had time to walk for hours along its banks and enjoy the beautiful scenery.
Visit to Palgakjeong on Bugaksan Mountain
After visiting the Han River, our driver, Hong Kyung-jun, who spoke English fluently, headed toward Palgakjeong, an octagonal pavilion on Bugaksan Mountain in north Seoul with a fantastic view that makes you feel like Seoul is at your feet.
The forested mountain road to Palgakjeong gives visitors a sense of calm and tranquility. Palgakjeong offers tourists lovely views of Seoul and its surrounding mountains.
Saera said people visit Palgakjeong for entertainment, with many playing music or reciting poetry.
When one looks at north Seoul from Palgakjeong, one sees high-rise apartments surrounded by forests. The scenery gives one the impression that it is a mountain resort and not north Seoul.
After visiting Palgakjeong, we drove near the Blue House, the presidential palace which is constructed in the form of a traditional Korean hanok. Nearby we saw some police officers on guard.
The Odusan Unification Observatory
On the morning of August 17, we went to the Odusan Unification Observatory north of Seoul, where Koreans and foreigners visit to get a glimpse of the area. It is a perfect spot to witness the division of the Korean Peninsula in person.
It took us about one hour to drive from Seoul to the top of the hill, where the observatory is located. We looked through telescopes to see North Korea on the other side of the Imjin River, which divides North and South Korea.
The observatory overlooks the confluence of the Imjin and Han rivers. Between the observatory and North Korea there is a two-kilometer stretch of water.
On the border, the Imjin River is two kilometers from bank to bank at its widest point and less than 500 meters at its narrowest.
There are rooms where a film that provides some information about Odusan itself and North Korea is screened. You can watch either the English or the Korean language version of the film.
There are many exhibits and pictures explaining the 1950-1953 Korean War and other significant historical events.
The philosophy behind the construction of the observatory is to remind the younger generation about the tragic reality of the divided Korean Peninsula, which I personally like to call the “divided family”.
It seems that most of the people who visit Odusan, both Koreans and foreigners, pray for the unification of the two Koreas. There is a Unification Wishing Room in the observatory where visitors can write down their wishes for unification on pieces of paper. These notes will be stored in a time capsule until the day when the two Koreas are unified.
Now that I have returned to Iran, I really regret the fact that I forgot to write a note expressing may heartfelt wishes for a unification of the “divided family”.
I felt sad when Saera told me that her grandmother had been left behind in North Korea when the peninsula was divided and now she does not know whether she is alive or dead.
While we were visiting the observatory, we saw an exhibition displaying the goods produced at the Kaesong industrial complex in North Korea, a facility built by South Korea as a sign of goodwill to bury enmities and take steps toward unification.
The observatory also has a museum showing everyday items from North Korea, such as clothes worn by average citizens. It even has a model of a North Korean elementary school classroom.
The Unification Exhibition Hall also has exhibits on the division of the peninsula, as well as the conflicts, dialogue, and cooperative interactions between the two Koreas.
Outside the observatory, there is a sculpture symbolizing peace, a unification wishing drum, and a worship alter.
After touring the observatory, we drove down the hill and then ate lunch at a traditional Korean restaurant, where we sat on the floor. After that, we drove back to Seoul for our next stop.
The National Museum of Korean Contemporary History
The National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul depicts the history of Korea in the political, economic, social, and cultural spheres stage by stage, starting from 1876, when the nation opened its ports to the outside world.
The museum informs visitors about both bitter episodes, such as the Japanese colonization of Korea, the division of the Korean Peninsula, and the 1950-1953 Korean War and the amazing economic and industrial progress made by the Republic of Korea (South Korea) in just sixty years.
In other words, the museum demonstrates how the Republic of Korea has transformed itself from one of the poorest nations in the world to one of the most technologically advanced countries.
In addition, it shows the country’s struggle to establish civil society and democracy.
The museum documents various educational programs established to help South Koreans understand the recent history of their country. In fact, it promotes the national will and vision for the Korean people and future generations.
The museum familiarizes kindergarteners and elementary, middle, and high school students, as well as adults, with contemporary Korean history.
For example, the Discovery Center is meant to help children experience, discover, and understand the country’s modern history.
We also saw groups of schoolchildren touring the museum, with guides and instructors giving them explanations about the exhibits.
The Prelude to the Republic of Korea (1876-1945) section begins with the year 1876, when the Joseon dynasty officially ended the seclusion policy and moves on to the Japanese colonization of Korea and the 1945 national liberation movement.
The Founding of the Republic of Korea (1945-1960) section tells the story of the establishment of the Republic of Korea, the devastating Korean War, the efforts made to achieve the post-war recovery, and the laying of the foundations of national development. The section also has photos depicting the April 19 Revolution of 1960, in which students and other citizens fought to restore democracy in the Republic of Korea.
The Development of the Republic of Korea (1961-1987) section has exhibits displaying the country’s economic development and rapid industrialization as well as the transformation of urban and rural areas and the promotion of civil society.
What attracted my attention the most was the exhibit showing a 1982 model of the first truly South Korean car, the Hyundai Pony, which hit showrooms in 1975. The docent said models, with steering wheels on the right, were later exported to New Zealand, which was a turning point in the industrialization of South Korea.
And finally, the Modernization and Korea’s Vision of the Future (1988 to the present) section shows South Korea’s embrace of globalization and emergence as a developed nation. It tells the tale of how the country managed to rise from the ashes of the 1950-1953 war and establish an advanced economy in less than half a century, becoming a global player in the sporting, cultural, and economic spheres in the process.
Jeonju Hanok Village
On August 18, at 7:40 a.m. local time, we left the Plaza Hotel and drove to the Seoul Express Terminal, where we took a bus to Jeonju, a tourist city that is famous for its traditional hanok houses. On the way to the terminal, we passed through a long tunnel and a small tunnel and then crossed over the Han River to reach the terminal.
Saera bought tickets, and after we waited for some time at the terminal, the bus started moving. It took us about three and a half hours to reach Jeonju.
On the road, some passengers slept or amused themselves with their tablets or laptops, but I could not miss a moment of the beautiful views of forested mountains, paddy fields, high-rise buildings, rivers, bridges, and villages.
During this trip, I realized that it is not just Seoul that is developed, but in reality the whole country is harmoniously developed or is on the road to progress.
After we reached Jeonju, we ate lunch and took a brief rest until a car came and took us to Samnye Art Village. The complex was originally a group of rice warehouses built in 1920, but in 2010 it was converted into an art center. Some of the buildings look modern and some still look like warehouses.
The art village has seven buildings -- an information center, a book museum, a book art center, an art gallery, a design museum, a wood works center, and a culture cafe.
The Samnye Art Village is actually an education center.
Old printing presses are also on exhibit.
One of the things that really caught my attention was an artistic work which shows that the West Sea (the Yellow Sea) is naturally calm and quiet but has become restless due to the tension between North and South Korea.
Another very interesting artistic work was a video of a penguin anxiously watching the ice melting in the Antarctic, while the people in cities, especially big cities, are recklessly producing more and more greenhouse gas emissions, apparently with no concern about global warming.
The art works depicting a restless West Sea and an anxious penguin show that South Koreans want friendly ties with North Korea and are trying to promote an environmentally friendly lifestyle.
In the area of the art village, some South Koreans and some foreigners were creating pottery works. In addition, a Korean woman, dressed in traditional attire, was making traditional juice.
After touring the Samnye Art Village, we boarded the car and headed toward the Jeonju Hanok Village in the center of the city, where houses are built with wooden frames.
On the stone-paved main streets, where the hanok houses are located, cars are a rare sight, and this allows people, and especially tourists, to observe the artfully constructed hanok houses in a calm and relaxed manner.
There are over 800 hanoks in Jeonju. While the rest of the city has been industrialized, the hanoks retain their traditional charm.
I saw a hanok under construction on a main street.
The hanoks are now used as traditional tea shops, souvenir shops, museums, guest houses, and restaurants. I, too, bought souvenirs from a shop there.
I also spent the night in a hanok. It was the first time I ever slept in a traditional Korean house, and it was an experience that I will never forget in my whole life. The hanok was near a forested hill, and the chirping of crickets filled the air.
In truth, I felt much more comfortable in the hanok than at the Plaza Hotel in Seoul.
At seven in the morning, when we woke up, a lady, who was also the manager of the hanok, provided various traditional foods for breakfast. We ate while sitting on the floor, and the food was very delicious. A bowl of rice, vegetables, meat, red pepper paste, eggs, and other things were placed on the table. I could not resist tasting all the main and side dishes.
While we were waiting for the car to arrive to take us to the city of Daegu, I saw that this lady was constantly working. She never stopped, even for a moment.
The car arrived and we travelled to Daegu. On the road, we stopped at a restaurant for half an hour. After passing through many tunnels, some of them very long, we arrived in Daegu, the third largest city in the Republic of Korea, in two hours. The visit had been arranged so I could see the Daegu Solar Power Tower and the city’s other solar power project.
My visit to Daegu, which is really a beautiful and modern city, nicely rounded out my trip to South Korea.