6 Surprising Things About Seoul, South Korea

Seoul
These two Korean women were very excited to have an American take their photo. Don’t ask me why!

Seoul, South Korea was my introduction to being in a large Asian city. It was a disorienting but welcoming swirl of humanity and activity. Modern exists side-by-side with the ancient. You’ll also be surprised by the mountains and the amount of open space -- especially since it’s so close to the ultimate in high-density sprawl. If you have plans to visit Seoul, here’s a bit of what you can expect.

Architecture Mish-Mash in Seoul

Right next to a modern-but-bland skyscraper, you’ll find a castle that’s hundreds of years old. Look a little further, and you’ll find apartments that would barely meet building codes in the U.S. A few feet further, you’ll see a modern architecture marvel. There seems to be no zoning law, with business and residential spaces elbow-to-elbow. The building aesthetic goes from blocky to breathtaking in the span of a few footsteps.

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I love the crazy looks of this building in Seoul.

Warm Welcome from Residents

Seoul’s residents seem to have a soft spot for visitors – especially those who clearly don’t speak Korean or have any understanding of their Hangul alphabet (few signs are in English). They have a knack for knowing who needs directions, and they are not shy about asking if you need help.

Late Dinners

It seems that South Koreans like to have a later dinner, followed by a lot of strolling in the shopping hubs and the underground markets. So don’t be surprised if the restaurants are empty if you’re an early diner. They don’t dine quite as late as Spaniards, but they definitely head to the table later than many Americans.

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The modern and the ancient co-exist.

Seoul has First-Rate Transit

I absolutely love the subways in Seoul (and Busan, too). There are few places you can’t reach with one of the very inexpensive subway passes. The subway cars themselves are very clean. During the rush hours, they’ll be crowded – be ready for a huge press of humans!

Well-Dressed People – and Pets!

Even during the leisurely weekends, Koreans love dressing up: High heels for the women, ties for the men. When they hike, they’re an oxygen tank short of looking like they plan to summit Mount Everest (the opposite of Australians, who’d show up at Everest base camp wearing a pair of flip-flops). I even saw a chihuahua wearing shoes! It all makes sense because shopping seems to be a full-contact varsity sport in South Korea.

Yes, that’s a chihuahua wearing shoes.

You’ll Be a Novelty in Seoul

Non-Asians are not common. We had people ask to take our photos, have their photos taken with us, and even just have us take their photos. One very kindly hiker even commandeered my camera for 30 minutes to make us pose all over one of the mountains. People might even seem amazed that you chose to visit South Korea – and they love hearing how much you enjoy it. And you will enjoy it -- lots.

Adventure in the English Lake District

Buttermere - Lake District
A spectacular view of Buttermere in the Lake District.

It shocks more than a few people that I have never been to the UK. Believe me, it’s on the list! Even though I can’t tell you anything first-hand about traveling in the UK, I fortunately have some people who can. Guest writer Amanda Andrews shows us the more rural and adventurous side of the UK in this post. Caving? Hiking? Biking? Yes!  Enjoy, and take a few ideas from Amanda. -Wandering Justin

I didn’t really know much about the English Lake District until recently. Now, it’s near the top of my must-visit list. It’s known for being one of the most picturesque areas of the country, with the quaint little towns and the stunning scenery of the famous lakes, but it’s also a haven for the adventurous. There’s an activity for every traveler.

Walking

The Lake District is time and again listed as one of the top UK destinations for hiking, or just walking as the locals call it. There’s no end to the trails and routes that you can take on a walking holiday in the area. There are trails here for every level of walker, so you can take a leisurely stroll across green fields and around the lakes. Eager for a more substantial challenge? Try The Cumbrian Way or The Coast to Coast walk, which is 191 miles long and takes you from the Irish Sea to the North Sea through three National Parks!

Biking

On two wheels is really the way to see the Lake District. The area again caters to all experience levels. Cumbria is a quiet, rural county so it’s great for travelling around on bike - you’re unlikely to be chased off the road by speeding cars, and travelling the country lanes by bike is a great way to see the real Cumbria. If you’re looking for something a little faster moving then check out one of the local bike shops and sign up for a mountain biking course, or just grab a map if you want to give it a go solo. With a combination of bridleways and man-made tracks criss-crossing the county there is something to suit everyone. From low valley trails to high mountain passes, this is the place to test your biking mettle in the UK.

Climbing

The Lake District is considered the birth place of modern mountain climbing and has been the training ground for many with Everest aspirations. It doesn’t matter if you’re a complete novice or a fully fledged crag-rat: The adventures are endless. Don’t let their modest height fool you. Many of the climbs in the Lakes are incredibly technical. And it’s not a bad idea to head out with a guiding company at first just to get the lay of the land.

If you’d rather go down than up, try caving and canyoning. Both of these give you a completely different perspective of the landscape and allow you to explore areas of the world that most people have never seen. Just one warning: Claustrophobics need not apply.

By Water

Open water swimming, canoeing, gorge walking, kayaking, wind surfing-being that the area is famous because of its lakes it isn’t surprising that water activities abound! Lake Windermere is the venue for the Great North Swim, the UK’s biggest outdoor swimming event, and holds ½ mile, 1 mile, and 2 mile events and is currently open for entries. What an amazing way to spend part of a holiday in the UK, jumping in the water with some 10, 000 other swimmers from around the world! Don’t expect tropical water temperature here though, it’s the north of England and you won’t want to hit the water here without a wet suit.

Where to Stay

Now that your appetite has been sufficiently whet, you want to know where to stay on your trip. There is no shortage of accommodation in the Lake District and there will be something for you no matter what your budget. Camping and hostelling are probably your cheapest options, though the weather in the Lakes can be a bit unpredictable so camping might not be to everyone’s taste. A great option if you’re looking for an outdoor based trip is renting a self-catering holiday cottage in the Lake District and the cost may be less than you’d expect. Splitting the cost between a group of friends can really cut down the individual cost and if you’re looking for a really great deal then travelling in the off season can save masses. Web cottages are an online holiday cottage rental agent with independently owned cottages throughout the UK and Ireland and are a great option if you’re looking for Lake District cottages.

All of this makes the Lake District a must-see location on my next trip to the UK. The area is ideally located to stop at when you’re doing a trip around the little island of Britain, it’s just north of Liverpool and Wales and not too far from the Scottish border. If it’s as good as it sounds I think a holiday in the Lakes won’t soon be forgotten.

Amanda enjoys traveling and has traveled extensively both in the UK and abroad. Amanda writes regular travel articles for Web Cottages and its partners, including blogging about interesting travel news/stories when they crop up. Her experience traveling and excellent ability to research means her articles are both informative and enjoyable.

This post is featured by Web Cottages. 

Spooling up to High Speed – Korea’s KTX Train

A shot of the fast, smooth KTX high-speed train.

My love of flying sometimes makes people think I’m weird. Fair enough.

Now I’ll make it worse – I love traveling by train, too. I know, I know … I have the brain of a 6-year-old boy perched atop a 6’2, 200-pound body.

I wanted to share the rail love with even more people who’d appreciate it, so I wrote a guest post for Jools of TrainsontheBrain.com. He’s tops when it comes to train blogs, no foolin’. It’s all about my first-ever taste of high-speed rail on the South Korean KTX train that sent me hurtling from Busan to Seoul.

You should go check out my post and all the other cool train stories at TrainsontheBrain.com.

An Airsoft First-Timer Tells All

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Probably the coolest protective gear on the field.

Light drizzle, a chilly wind, 45 degrees and overcast -- it’s finally winter in the desert. I’m warm thanks to my Army battle dress uniform, gloves and balaclava.

And every run, dodge, dip and duck through the ruins of Sasco, Ariz. also keeps the chill away. The abandoned mining town is filled with foes firing torrents of plastic 6mm projectiles at me from replica assault rifles – I’ve lost count of every M-4, M-16, MP-5 and AK-47 I’ve faced.

I’m an Airsoft first-time. And my first game ever is a heaping slice of deep-fried gold.

Never heard of Airsoft? I think of it as paintball done right -- the guns function better, they’re less awkward, there’s no dye getting everywhere. The very realistic-looking weapons spew plastic balls somewhere between 300 and 500 feet per second. My Echo1 rifle, one of its RedStar line of AK-47 replicas, straddles the middle. It’s not fancy or pricey, but it helps me hold my own. No malfunctions, just steady performance.

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The pylons lead to the way to what’s left of the mining tunnel. Lots of ambushes and betrayals here …

My Monolith team – one of several teams in the game – has only four people. We’re overmatched and outgunned, with nary a true machine gun or sniper rifle among us. We try to compensate, bribing other teams (like Free Stalkers and Bandits) to harass, harry, heckle and harangue the team standing in as the Russian military.

My entire day of Airsoft first-timer fun is the result of some hard work put in by a go-getter named Darr. He displays ambition, serious organizational chops and a real love for this game. Throughout the day, people rave about his scenario, which he based on the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl video game. The remains of the smelter and skeleton of the mining operation fill in nicely as a slice of the abandoned, irradiated Russian city called Pripyat. Darr has everything right: the game area, his ability to improvise, the props and layout. Success requires negotiation skills, duplicity and wariness (for the inevitable betrayals).

airsoft first-timer
Max, David and Henry were my Monolith teammates.

About 30 minutes pass before the teams open fire on each other. Until then, it’s a crock pot of diplomacy, misdirection, evaluation. I love the tension, especially next to the premature release of so many flavors of paintball games.

I learn a lot about Airsoft and the people who play it. They are professionals, college students, high schoolers. Some sit back to take advantage of cover, firepower, superior numbers. Others make and break deals at will. Some sneak through the creosote and ruins, unheard and unseen. Others stomp around in heavily armed herds. In short, there’s something for everyone.

But here’s what worries me about Airsoft, especially in Arizona – there are few convenient places to organize awesome events like this. And too few people willing to do the heavy lifting of contacting the owners and managers of empty spaces. Sasco is terrific, but remote. I can think of several places within 30 minutes of the Phoenix area that would be perfect.

And the Airsoft industry needs to work harder to get more people involved. It should target every single World of Warcraft/Call of Duty/Halo fiend. If one out of every 50 uninitiated people permanently attached to gaming systems wound up on a field with a decent Airsoft replica in-hand, profits and advocacy would soar. I’d also hit CrossFit gyms and all the people who love stuff like the Warrior Dash -- fitness pays dividends in Airsoft. I could see a smart Airsoft shop (or manufacturer/brand) even holding a biathlon – running with your Airsoft replica and stopping to use it to hit targets every half mile. Provide loaners for Airsoft first-timers who don’t have their own – a perfect introduction.

airsoft first-timer
Me!

From there? Get players talking about finding viable places to play just as much as they talk about gear (your fancy hop-up and tight-bore barrel will be more fun if you have more places to put them to work).

But those are thoughts for another time. For now, my bottom line: All credit to Darr for his imagination, thoroughness and commitment to crafting a really outstanding time for the Airsoft players from the Valley to Tucson. Поздравляю!

Check out Darr’s YouTube slideshow, and do note the groovy pirate-metal soundtrack. Avast!

Review – South Korea’s Incheon International Airport

incheon korean airlines 747 golf course
South Korea's Incheon Airport shows its whimsical side.
I’m watching people in traditional Korean dress teach art classes. To my left, there’s a string quartet playing to a growing audience. But when I look to my right, I get roped back to reality – masses of travelers rushing to gates or shambling toward the baggage claim after a long flight. This is Incheon International Airport, and it’s seriously the best damn airport that’s ever waved me through a magnetometer.

Let’s start with these art classes: Travelers can drop into one of the Korea Traditional Cultural Experience centers scattered throughout the terminal behind the security area.

There, they can take a free lesson in a few different simple Korean art projects. It’s a great way to spend part of a four-hour layover -- and I have visions of an Arizona Traditional Cultural Experience Center at my home airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor (I have visions of a shooting gallery, a road-rage driving simulator and a mechanical bull).

Is that not some spacious airport architecture? (Kanchi1979)

What else is cool about Incheon?

Wi-fi, food, architecture and transit. Let’s talk wi-fi first – you’re in luck if you have your own computer. But if you don’t, just drop into Naver Square Internet Lounge, where you can hop onto a netbook for absolutely free.

Food’s important for an airport, too.

Incheon has the array of Asian food you’d expect, with just about every country represented. I had a nice Vietnamese fried rice from one of the food courts just upstairs from the main floor. Sarah and I both scooped up some quality gelato – I was tempted to try the black sesame flavor, but it didn’t have anything chunky in it. It’s one of my odd quirks that I like chunks in my ice cream. I’m typically not a hot dog person, but they have some crazy hot dogs throughout Korea. I didn’t try any since, like I said, I’m not a huge lover of nitrate-crammed cylindrical mystery meats.

They have to taste better than they look. The Asian entrees appealed to me more!

The architecture is open an airy, with plenty of windows.

Plane spotters must surely love it, though I didn’t find any outdoor areas for taking photos. For such a busy airport, it never felt cramped. Traffic flowed, and it was easy to find anything you might need, when you need it.

It’s easy to get to and from Incheon.

By rail is the best way, with commuter and express trains zipping people into Seoul and its surroundings. There are also buses, and plenty of helpful airport staff members to help you navigate if your Korean language skills are limited to "hello" and "thank you" (like mine!).

And there’s one final thing about Incheon that I love – that current of energy that permeate nearly every major intercontinental airport. People from everywhere stream across the globe – some for business, some to enjoy new-to-them cultures, people and sights. It’s one of my favorite parts of travel. Incheon brings it to a rare height by having that unmistakable vibe while also being a paragon of design.